The British Queen has a collection of the finest 200 pigeons, and her most prized bird is a ‘Lahore Pigeon’. That got me interested in the subject and brought back memories of our youth and our two younger brothers.

But first about the Queen. At her Sandringham Palace she has a special building for her pigeons, and whenever she is there she spends most of her time among her pigeons. There is a Royal Pigeon Manager who has a staff which includes a veterinary doctor specialising in pigeons and a team that keeps the pens sparkling clean. As I explored this dimension of royal pastimes, it was interesting that over 200 years ago King George passed a law making all pigeon droppings in the land as belonging to the Crown. The reason was that from these costly droppings they extracted saltpetre to make gunpowder.

Before I come to my brothers and their antics and Lahore, just one small detail. A Chinese buyer in 2019 purchased a ‘Lahore Racing Pigeon’ for a whooping US$1.7 million. That comes to Rs26.5 crores. So pigeon business is big business. The Lahore Pigeon is a ‘developed’ version of the Rock Dove, the original starting breed from ancient times. The ancient rock carvings found in France, at least over 10,000 years old, has pigeons flying on them. Experts class them as the first birds to be domesticated.

Now to my brothers. Many aeons ago when my younger brother Karim realised that a barber had arrived at our place on Masson Road to carry out an essential critical ‘cutting’, he disappeared. After one hour of searching the youngest Rauf said that there was only one place he felt safe. He was found in the ‘Kabootar da Chagga’. The next I remember that he was proudly walking around without clothes showing off his bandaged ‘prize’.

But then that is where the two younger ones lived most of the time. If someone else’s pigeon came and sat on the wall, a virtual emergency was declared. Seeds were thrown liberally. It was lured to the pen and what a celebration followed. My English mother would invariably remark: “Oh God, not another one”. I recently sent Karim photographs of pigeon varieties from the internet, and the expert identified each and every one of them in Punjabi names. It was as if grandfather Karim had regained his youth and the sparkle was back.

If you visit the old walled city of Lahore, as well as the areas around it, and even faraway places, the one single things that is common is that every fifth house has a ‘Kabootar da Chagga’ on the highest roof. Inside the walled city probably the highest one is on top of a Shahalam Market building, whose trader owner is crazy about these birds. Sometimes he brings his prized birds to his shop in a small cage near the front counter. The staff every hour visit the rooftop to report the latest situation. The owner is known as ‘Haji Sahib Bao Kabootarwalay’.

Those with this passion walk about, even in their old age, eyes in the sky. I remember my youngest brother running on single-brick walls at breakneck speed. Their favourite was a ‘Shah Siri’, or the ‘Royal Head Pigeon’, which is a variety of Rock Dove that serves for carrying messages over long distances. In the Battle of Multan in 1818, the Sikh ruler Maharajah Ranjit Singh was kept informed of all battle developments thanks to hundreds of pigeons that kept flying between his encampment and the battle.

But then pigeons have played a major role in almost every war before the wireless was invented. Even in the Second World War they played a huge role, especially among Resistance fighters. On the comic side the Indian Border Police of recent invariably catch a ‘spy pigeon’ in some border post. But then in history we know that the Egyptian Pharaohs used an army of pigeons for military information. So did Alexander as well as Rajah Porus (the Puru of Bhera). The Vedas are full of stories about pigeons as are almost all books, including the Old Testament and other religious texts.

What is it about this bird that makes them so special? The experts tell us that they become friendly very quickly and recognise their owner even if he is miles away. As long as they are fed well, they remain loyal. If one perches on your house, the best way is to feed the bird well. If it returns it means you have a good chance of capturing and keeping it for good. But then pigeon lovers surely are known for their skill in tracking down lost birds, mostly using special whistling sounds.

Of the varieties that people prize most is the ‘Lakka’ – or the fan-tail pigeon. They are beautiful to look at, and my mother always thought it was worth spoiling. A ‘Lakka’ is tame and gentle by nature and not a very good flier. However, when it does it undertakes an amusing mid-air flip and is back home quickly. There is a special need to protect them from cats and bird-kites (Cheels). It is very intelligent, for if you once throw a stone at a ‘Lakka’ rest assured he will stay out of your way. In a way it is a single-coloured peacock that royalty prize. Maharajah Ranjit Singh had a special section in the Lahore Fort named ‘Lakkay da Adda’.

Now, finally, on to Lahore’s world of pigeons. The local names are ‘Kaamakhar’ or Original Rock Doves, the variety the Indians are most suspicious of. Then there is the ‘Wahshe’ or Golden Flier. When high in the sky you need special binoculars to track them, for they can fly for over ten hours at a stretch.

A very expensive variety is the ‘Toopi Sialkoti’ which has a fluffy crown and is a high-flier. Then there is the aggressive variety called ‘Dabbar’ which manages to find room for itself among other varieties by bullying them. It also is a good flier. An equally aggressive variety is the ‘Khaki Lakka’, a beautiful bird to look at and a high performer in the sky.

Among the expensive varieties is the ‘Parmoch’, a champion flier that normally costs Rs5 lakh and above. But top of the list is ‘Aliwalay Baanka’ those flying time has been clocked at over 12 hours covering 1,000 miles. These were once used by military rulers all over the world. Also this column would be without merit if I did not mention the ‘Surkhay’ we woke up to those cooing every day. My mother would send some crumbs with the remark: “Feed the red bugger so I can have my cuppa in peace”. Such is life if you love these amazing birds.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2021

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