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Flight of fancy

Updated August 10, 2014

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Bahadur, as he is known, has just returned from a truly perilous journey. He has braved countless miles and the predations of taloned foes. With his feathers only slightly ruffled, he lands on the rooftop of his human, 51-year old Imran Farooqi. Bahadur is, after all, a pigeon.

“Yeh shauq hai qissay kahaniyon ka” (this is a passion of storytelling),” says Farooqi, who has been rearing pigeons for over 40 years now. “There are only 10-12 days of cup competitions; the other 350 days or so of the year, most of us spend time by sharing tales of our pigeons with those interested. How are the pigeons? How are their parents? Their children? It is just like a human parent-child relationship; maybe sometimes even more intimate than that.”

Sitting next to Farooqi is another pigeon enthusiast, Ahmed Siddiqui. He nods his head in knowing acknowledgement of what Farooqi says. More intimate than even a parent-child relationship, he reasserts.


Don’t call them birdbrains; Pakistan’s determined pigeon racing enthusiasts take their hobby very seriously indeed. They spend a great deal of money, time and effort in making sure their feathered friends are flying fit


Pigeon rearing in South Asia is a tradition that has its roots in the Mughal Empire. Legend has it that Emperor Zaheeruddin Babar first brought pigeons with him to the Indian Subcontinent from Kabul, Afghanistan as he sought to establish an empire in India. These breeds were high-flying: they would spend countless hours in the skies as the king marched ahead; today, these same pedigreed breeds are known as Kabuli Pigeons.


Pigeons are sometimes also doped — a practice called “khel paani” in pigeon rearing lexicon. The idea is to ensure that pigeons enjoy their flight, as much as they can, and to build their flying stamina. “There is preparation dope and there is flight dope,” explains Farooqi. “Pigeons are fed various medicine combinations and drugs; opium, Avil and Viagra for strength. Then there is gold water and silver water that is fed to them too.”


“There are three types of pigeons: the high-flying, the low-flying, and the boisterous,” explains Farooqi. “The high-flying ones are the best kind; they are smart, they can be trained, and they aren’t really a nuisance. Low-flying ones are usually cross-bred varieties; the Pattiwalay or the Khanabadosh, for example. Serious enthusiasts don’t really like the boisterous ones because of their notorious reputation of sparring with each other and making lots of noise. Nobody likes that.”


Pakistani pigeon enthusiasts maintain that the tradition is now mostly carried forward on this side of the border, because Indian pigeon enthusiasts have been unable to shed the “Muslim baggage” associated with the passion.


Farooqi himself has a collection of 250-300 pigeons. Not all have a name, but he can easily recognise which pigeon is which. Bahadur of course, is a special pigeon; he has won numerous accolades over the years. “It started with a competition; he outlasted all others and he was given an award of bahaduri (bravery). Ever since, he is Bahadur.”


The high-flying breeds made a comeback once an official of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Karachi, Baqeed-ul-Ramzi, teamed up with some local enthusiasts. Together, they reorganised the pigeon competition scene, held a cup competition for high-flying breeds, and shunned the cross-bred low-flying variety.


Ever since they are little squabs, pigeons need a set diet. Breeders tend to divide feeding habits according to the competition season: one cup competition is held in summer and another in winter. Each competition lasts five to six days, but the preparation that goes into readying a pigeon for contest often takes months.


Using pigeons to deliver messages or for spying purposes is an age-old practice; back in colonial days, the British Army used to have a separate regiment of carrier pigeons. Some say that various political groups in Peshawar and Quetta use them even today to evade monitoring of messages from security agencies.


“Millet (bajra) and chickpeas (chana) are typically fed — but there is an important distinction. Before competitions, pigeons are de-feathered. At the time, they are fed everything that helps them build muscle. Bhora made in asli ghee (thick bread), almonds, black mustard leaves (sarson), white mustard leaves, even sunflower seeds. Then, when the time comes to prepare them for competition, you need the pigeon to become lean again. After a pigeon starts flying for four to five hours again, their feed is reverted to millet,” explains Farooqi.

Pigeons are sometimes also doped — a practice called “khel paani” in pigeon rearing lexicon. The idea is to ensure that pigeons enjoy their flight, as much as they can, and to build their flying stamina. “There is preparation dope and there is flight dope,” explains Farooqi. “Pigeons are fed various medicine combinations and drugs; opium, Avil and Viagra for strength. Then there is gold water and silver water that is fed to them, too.”

Unlike other races, when coming in first lands the gold medal, pigeon competitions (for high-flying pigeons) are all about coming in last. The test of the contest is about endurance and intelligence: the longer a pigeon stays airborne, the better. But it cannot stay airborne for an unlimited time either; it needs to return to its abode at a set time too.

“There are very particular rules and regulations for pigeon competitions, which vary from place to place. Lahore has a separate set of rules, Karachi has a different one,” descrbies Siddiqui.

“Seven pigeons are allowed in competitions, and their total airborne time is counted and scores given accordingly. In Lahore, you release only those seven into the sky. But in Karachi, you are allowed to release eight — one of them is extra, in case any one doesn’t return home. But then there are times when two or three might not return to their rooftop or they are tardy in returning; that’s when you lose score. A good high-flying pigeon is one that returns home, punctually,” says Siddiqui.

Timing is crucial: competitions for high-flying pigeons usually start at 5.30am in Lahore, while they begin at 7am in Karachi. The difference in start-times is due to temperature and humidity; the cooler the temperature, the better it is for pigeons to take flight. Once the air is warm, though, pigeons don’t tend to go into the skies.

“If your pigeon is airborne at 7am in Karachi, you won’t find it on the horizon by 7.15am. They are gone for the day, and will return home at their designated times,” claims Siddiqui.

“Most pigeons are trained to return home as soon as dusk starts falling. Before Maghrib prayers, your pigeons should be home,” chimes in Farooqi.

But soaring to heights isn’t what pigeons are all about; the tradition of carrier pigeons is well and alive too. “Using pigeons to deliver messages or for spying purposes is an age-old practice; back in colonial days, the British Army used to have a separate regiment of carrier pigeons. Some say that various political groups in Peshawar and Quetta use them even today to evade monitoring of messages from security agencies,” says Farooqi.

Then there are long-distance travellers, meticulously trained to identify how to return home. “These pigeons are first trained in their neighbourhoods. You take them away from their abode and release them. These birds are so intelligent that they’ll find their rooftop. Then slowly, you start increasing the distance to cover,” explains Farooqi.

Those interested in long-distance travellers tend to build working relationships with transporters, in an attempt to secure their help in training pigeons. “What a transporter does for you is that he will carry your pigeon wherever you want and then release them into the air,” explains Siddiqui.

“For example, you wanted your Karachiite pigeon to be released in Hyderabad; the transporter will do that and then it is for the pigeon to find its way back home to Karachi. There are competitions for long-distance travellers. The approved route is between Multan and Rawalpindi; those who have been trained well usually win,” he adds.

Amid the array of pigeons available in Karachi, the high-flying breeds — the Kabuli, for example — are said to be the most precious. But their tradition had faded into oblivion till about a decade ago; many amateur enthusiasts had taken to low-flying breeds and (cross-bred) varieties since they would be able to see their pigeons fly.

The high-flying breeds made a comeback once an official of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Consulate in Karachi, Baqeed-ul-Ramzi, teamed up with some local enthusiasts. Together, they reorganised the pigeon competition scene, held a cup competition for high-flying breeds and shunned the cross-bred low-flying variety.

The endeavour took root to such an extent, says Farooqi, that Ramzi exported the passion of pigeon rearing and competitions from Pakistan to the UAE. Breeders of pedigreed varieties became sought-after folk; ustads such as Chaudhry Sakhi, Mohammad Hussain Lallianiwaly, Mian Nazir and Mian Rauf were all immediately in lucrative business.

“The biggest difference between the UAE and Pakistan is that in Dubai they have official government patronage. In Karachi, for example, you’ll find various rival groups vying for power,” elaborates Farooqi.

Pakistani pigeon enthusiasts maintain that the tradition is now mostly carried forward on this side of the border, because Indian pigeon enthusiasts have been unable to shed the “Muslim baggage” associated with the passion. “India has preserved the pedigreed breeds and varieties, but Pakistanis have carried forward the tradition. Punjab has a glorious tradition of even making innovations, and creating new varieties. There is no Hindu-Muslim baggage associated with pigeon rearing in Pakistan,” says Siddiqui.

And yet, the passion and practice of pigeon-rearing can be a very costly one. “Ordinarily, you can find a pigeon for as low as Rs50. But then you won’t know the pedigree, its family lineage or anything else,” says Farooqi. “What matters is whose rooftop does the pigeon belong to? If you were to buy from the ustads, the cost can be in hundreds of thousands.”

The amateur enthusiast can and is often taken for a ride, but people like Farooqi and Siddiqui are old hands, who can tell what is right and wrong with a pigeon by only looking at it. “Because people charge commission on introducing interested folks to breeders and on sales, the amateur can always be fooled into overpaying. Those who have spent years in pigeon rearing are a different category altogether,” says Farooqi.

But families of pigeon enthusiasts and breeders often find the practice deplorable because of the money spent on fuelling the passion. “During the week-long season, enthusiasts visit each other’s rooftops, often to share stories and meet with friends from other places. About Rs2,500 are spent each day on hospitality, at least in my household. Not every family tolerate this extra financial burden so often, and many times people have altercations with their families,” describes Farooqi.

Over time, as Farooqi and Siddiqui narrate, it has come to be accepted as an undesirable but still tolerable practice by their families with growing security concerns, families in Karachi often believe that at least their sons and husbands should be inside their homes late night.

“Rearing and breeding pigeons is time consuming, of course — it relieves the everyday tension that one has. But who has time these days? Either a nawab or a beggar,” argues Farooqi. “It takes a lot out of you to be honest to pigeons, to care for them, but it brings unadulterated joy. This is why a bond with pigeons is more intimate than even a parent-child relationship.”

The writer tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 10th, 2014