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The royal falconers and pigeon-fancier

Falconry is thousands of years old. It was known in India as early as the Mahabharata days. Rajas and nawabs flaunted falcons like people do mobile phones these days.

R V Smith |

It was Maharaja Mansingh I who brought a falcon after the conquest of Bengal to Amber. It was said to belong to the Turkish Sultana of Akbar’s Court, who presented it to him for his valour in the 16th century. Maharaja Jai Singh II was gifted a falcon by his friend, Emperor Mohd Shah Rangila when he was building the Jantar Mantar at Delhi in the 18th century.

Sawai Ram Singh II was presented a falcon on behalf of the Curator of the Cairo Museum in the 19th century, who later sent the mummy of an Egyptian princess, preserved in the Albert Hall Museum now, to his successor. The falcon used to fly over the river Nile and catch fish too.

Sawai Madho Singh II was presented a falcon by Major James Alexander, which he had brought from Kabul after the Third Afghan War of 1919 following the assassination of Amir Habibullah.

Sawai Man Singh II, the last recognised ruler of Jaipur, was presented a falcon when he was India’s Ambassador to Spain, and his successor, Brig Bhawani Singh, brought one captured in Sindh during the Indo-Pak (Bangladesh) war of.1971.

The shikra (falcon) of Saeed Ahmed, an Indo-Turk, is now part of one’s memory. The falcon would sit on his wrist and, at a pull of its string, would shoot up and catch a small bird, usually a sparrow or a shyama. It was fed red meat and feared by children, who were wary of its sudden snap at their fingers.

Saeed used to wear a leather band on his wrist to protect it from the impulsive bird of prey. Those were the days when some of the rajas and nawabs flaunted falcons like people do mobile phones these days. Nagaland is famous for falcons migrating from colder climes in winter. Thousands of them were killed by the Nagas over the years but now conservation has begun.

Falconry is thousands of years old. It was known in India as early as the Mahabharata days. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as also the Chinese and Japanese, were fond of falconry. A falcon of Duryodhan snatched an ornament of Draupadi and was shot and injured by one of the Pandavas ~ something that the Kaurava leader resented very much until calmed down by his machiavellian uncle Shakuni.

The falcon of Bhishma Pitama is a favourite part of local lore but does not form part of the Mahabharata epic. The falcons of the pharaohs went into battle with them. Troy’s Prince Paris sent love notes to Helen through his falcon while resisting the siege by the Greeks. The latter also had their falcons.

Agamemnon sent his falcon with a message to comfort his wife Andromache. Aeneas’ departure was conveyed to the heart-broken Queen Dido by his falcon, which flew back to the hero’s ship and landed in Italy with its master.

No wonder the succeeding Romans enjoyed falconry while they were fighting their wars in Europe and in Africa. The Vikings and Mongols were also fond of it.

Nearer home, Babar and Humayun’s love for falcons was passed on to Akbar, who had them in his private quarters in the Agra Fort: But when the emperor’s prized pigeons were killed by them one night he had them caged so that his birds were kept out of harm’s way.

Jahangir sported a shikra in his youth at Fatehpur Sikri and Shah Jahan as Khurram had one presented to him by a Rajput prince with whom he and Mumtaz Mahal had taken shelter during his revolt against his father. A falcon was Guru Govind Singh’s favourite bird.

In our own times Saeed Ahmed’s shikra led to a craze for Falcons in the Walled City of Delhi. The nawabs of Basai Darapur and Jhajjar were known falconers, so also Nawab Shamsuddin Khan of Ferozepur, who was hanged for the assassination of the British Resident William Fraser.

The latter’s friend, Col James Skinner, saw a shikra aiding the Mahrattas during a battle. It belonged to Luckwa Dada, a crafty general of the Scindias. The colonel, a great hunter, acquired one for himself and in later years he would travel with it from his estate in Hansi to his mansion in Kashmere Gate.

However, Colonel Ochterlony, who defended Delhi against Jaswant Rao Holkar in 1804, is said to have had a dislike for falcons. Some said a falcon of Holkar’s had plucked out an eye of one of his soldiers guarding the city wall between the Delhi and Ajmeri gates.

During the Revolt of 1857, Maj-Gen John Nicholson too had his falcon when he laid siege to Delhi. What happened to it following the general’s death, after being fatally shot at Lahori Gate, is not known.

One heard these stories from Mian Sahib, a wizened old man, who used to come for his evening meals to Hafiz Hotel in Ballimaran. He would talk thirteen to the dozen while eating dinner and after he left, the hotel owner would shake his head and say, “God knows how much of what he says is true and how much is just gossip picked up on the roadside.”

However, it is a fact that Mian Sahib shared meals with Dr Zakir Husain at this restaurant during the would-be President of India’s salad days. Also true was his friendship with Hasrat Mohani, whose ghazal, “Chupke, Chupke” has been made famous by the singer Ghulam Ali.

The falcon was also a bird of omen. On seeing it Indira Gandhi was fatally shot by her guards in 1984. Saeed Ahmed’s shikra just flew away one day and was never seen again. However, Mian Sahib’s tale of the Mir Sahib, who had a lock of hair of his purdahnashin beloved plucked by a pet falcon, is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Like falconry, pigeon-fancying is also an old sport. The New Year brings with it a host of activities and pastimes, one of which is pigeon-fancying. Even now, in the Walled City, there are several mohallas, where the kabootarbaz, as they are called, make morning and evening ring to cries of “Aah” to call back the air-borne pigeons.

However, there was a time when, like the patangbaz, or kite-fliers, they too went to open spaces near the Yamuna to engage in kulkulain, or competitions, after feeding coarse grain to their flocks. Now, because of encroachments and consequent lack of space, the pigeon-fanciers compete only from their rooftops.

Hafiz Mian was a great kabootarbaz in the last century and his main rival was Deen Badshah. Each of them had hundreds of pigeons, both of Indian and foreign breed. There were Russian, Turkish and Afghan pigeons as well as Burmese and some other South Asian breeds, and of course, those from all over India.

Their cost even then was great, with the acrobatic Lotan kabootar occupying pride of place in the kabootar-khana, or specially built wood and wire mesh cages, with pigeon-holes for the birds to roost. The greybaz was also a highly-prized bird like the Kabuli.

Dennis Bhai’s old father, Elias Sahib, used to say his son could recognise the breed of a passing-by pigeon by just examining its droppings. Dennis Bhai had greenish eyes, just like some of his pigeons, and when he married he found a Muslim girl with the same kind of eyes, making a friend remark, “Wah Dennis, dulhan bhi khoob chunni hai.

Aankh se aankh mila di. (Bravo, you have found a bride with matching eyes).”Dennis Bhai is dead but his dulhan, Kesar, still survives as a tall, fair, slim pretty lady aging with grace, whose eyes glow with excitement whenever she sees a flock of pigeons darting across the sky to the frenzied whistling of rival kabootarbaz.

Pigeon-fancying was known in Egypt about 3,000 years ago and found great patronage in India during the Mughal era, when pigeon-fanciers from Baghdad, Turkey, Iran and Egypt flocked to the court. Prince Salim, who ascended the throne as Jahangir, spent several hours in their company, learning the tricks of pigeon-flying.

It is said that one day he asked a young palace girl, Mehr-un-Nissa, to hold two of his pigeons while he went to answer an urgent summons from his father, the Emperor Akbar. On his return he found the girl had only one pigeon in her hand. When he asked her what had happened to the other, she replie, “This,” and released the other pigeon also.

Her witty answer pleased the prince and he fell in love with her. Later, he married the girl, who became famous as Nur Jahan. Akbar himself was very fond of pigeon-flying and had some 20,000 pigeons of his own. He called the pastime “lshqbazi” or love-play.

Fr Monserrate, who saw them, writes in his commentary that the pigeons are cared for by eunuchs and servant-maids. Their evolutions are controlled at will, when they are flying, by means of certain signals, just as those of well-trained soldiery are controlled by a competent general by means of bugles and drums.

R V Smith