Kabootarbaazi was a hobby of the nawabs (an honorary title given by Mughal emperors to semi-autonomous Muslim rulers of princely states) of the Mughal times.
For a layman witnessing the game for the first it, kabootarbaazi appears to be about just a bunch of people setting their pigeons free and then calling them back by making sounds. However, the game is much more than that. It, in fact, forms a subculture that stands on the base of dignity, pride and honour.
Ustaad Aslam, a well-known personality in the kabootarbaaz community of Shahjahanabaad, elaborates more about the game. Two teams set free their pigeons, and the game begins. These pigeons are well trained in following their masters’ vocal instructions (sounds). Interestingly, the game is usually played between rivals and not between friends.
As the race starts, three sets of umpires are positioned at different points. A pair of umpires is positioned at the starting point, another pair at the finish line and one in the middle. Usually, the umpire who is farthest from the players is positioned two kilometres away. These six umpires, traditionally called “munsif” are carefully selected, and are supposed to be the ones with the sharpest eyesight and good experience as players. The umpires keep an eye on the distance travelled by each pigeon group, noting down which group returned in time and which group did not lose the way or get distracted by rival players’ sounds. When the pigeons return to their masters after flying far, it is considered a matter of great pride. It indicates that the kabootar (pigeon) is well trained and loyal to the master. Based on these three criteria, the successful kabootarbaaz is declared a winner.
Each game usually lasts 30 minutes. Following the game, to boast and celebrate the success of a victory, the winner has to throw a dinner for select members of the kabootarbaaz community, and these members have to be invited in a traditional manner that has been followed for centuries. The winner has to visit the house of the invitee and hand him one or more cardamoms. One cardamom means that only the invitee can come for the daawat (dinner party). If the invitee gets two cardamoms, the invitee can bring along any one other kabootaraaz with him. Three means that the invitee can get two other kabootarbaaz with him. And so on and so forth. The cardamoms can never be negotiated, the prime invitee has to accept whatever number of cardamoms he gets and ensure he gets as many guests to the daawat, without fail.
This way, Ustaad Aslam explains, there are several stages of pride, dignity and honour being tested before, during and after the game: one cannot say no to a challenge, the winner cannot refuse to host the daawat, invitees have to bring in the asked number of guests.
“The dinner has to be eaten by all, with people from all religions and backgrounds sitting together. Any sort of discrimination is not tolerated among the kabootarbaaz community,” explains Ustaad Aslam.
This rule holds a special significance as the game was popularly played in the days of high communal tension between Hindus and Muslims. One community discriminated the other on religious grounds, and only if one was a kabootarbaaz, he was refrained from practicing discrimination.
Aslam got the title of ‘Ustaad’ (expert) from his father. He is the third generation of his family practicing kabootarbaazi. Each ustaad has disciples or ‘shagirdh’, one of whom goes on to be declared an ustaad later. There is also one ‘khalifa’ who assists the ustaad. If a person challenges the ustaad for a game, the former has to first defeat the khalifa in order to compete with the ustaad.
Though Aslam’s father declared his son an ustaad, giving that title is not limited to blood relations. The ustaad simply needs to believe in the skills and experience of his shagirdh before declaring him an ustaad. Once an ustaad is declared among the shahgirdhs, the grand occasion is celebrated by tying a turban over the head of the new ustaad.