Nearly two decades ago, a pair of pigeons died one after another at Zahoor Ahmad Kumar’s home in Jamalata area of downtown Srinagar. The deaths broke Kumar’s heart.
“They couldn’t bear each other’s separation and I couldn’t bear theirs. I cried,” said Kumar, smiling faintly. “It ached my heart.”
For him, people in Kashmir would look down upon the pigeon keepers, who would pet the bird as a hobby and are locally known as Ko’tarbaaz. Over the decades, these people have been trying to make their place in Kashmiri society but couldn’t change the perspective of the majority.
“People don’t see this the way pigeon keeping is seen outside. We are considered vagabonds,” said Kumar.
The 55-year-old pigeon seller, who once was a keeper and trainer, believes that the sales of pigeons have increased in the last two years.
The two back-to-back lockdowns, initially prompted by the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August 2019, and then by COVID-19 in March 2020, said Kumar, have helped the sales as people looked for pets to “pass their time”.
“From rich to poor, a variety of customers buy pigeons for their children now. Petting pigeons keep them away from misdeeds,” said Kumar.
Cooing and flapping
Till four years ago, right after offering Fajr Salah when the sun would be yet to rise, Kumar would rush to his attic, open the small window, and inhale the fresh breeze of the morning before starting to whistle for communicating with his pigeons.
Listening to this, his pigeons would take a flight – cooing and eating maize – outside the window. “I would start training them in summer and help them fly,” said Kumar.
His pigeons were the motivation for Kumar to wake up early in the morning. Unlike any other Ko’tarbaaz, Kumar’s family liked his hobby and loved the birds equally.
For two decades, Kumar kept training pigeons and petting them at his home, and then four years ago, outside his tea shop – a few meters away from where he lives – he started selling them.
While he would excitedly talk about his journey as a pigeon keeper, a group of boys gathered around the pigeon cages – laughing and holding them. “See, even these kids collect money to buy a pigeon. Ko’tarbaazi is a passion,” said Kumar.
Kumar has spent half of his life with the pigeons, either training, breeding, or selling them. “It is the connection of heart with them,” he said. “I love my pigeons.”
Wearing a pheran – traditional loose garment, a stubble, and a smile on his face, taking a puff of a cigarette, Kumar would name different types of pigeons that he sells in Kashmir.
In one cage, white Yahoos were cooing next to dotted Musurs. In another, over ten grey Nil’e were flapping their wings. He buys the pigeon from the north Indian state Amritsar. “I buy pigeons for a lakh or so and end up selling them sometimes in a week or just five days,” he said.
Kumar would at least sell fifty pigeons a day more than the cups of tea he sells per day. Not just training pigeons, he has trained many people to train the birds.
Bilal Ahmad Hamaal stood next to Kumar. A man in his forties with a clean shave, wearing an olive color jacket is a well-wisher or – what the Ko’tarbaaz here call him – a doctor of pigeons.
“I only look after them – feed them and help them heal,” said Hamaal.
Even though Hamaal’s family didn’t like his hobby like Kumar’s family did, he would still look after them as he said, “it brings peace”.
Hamaal lives in the Makhdoom Sahib area of Srinagar but he very often pays a visit to Jamalata area to meet the pigeons and pigeon keepers. “If someone would let any pigeon go. I would keep it,” he said.
When he was still saying how he would secretly pet pigeons in the attic of his home, someone called him. He left and another hobbyist arrived.
“It’s an art”
Mohammad Shahnawaz Khan lives in the Sazgaripora of downtown Rajouri Kadal. He is a forty-year-old man who owns a hundred pigeons that he keeps in his room.
Every June and July at 5:00 am, Khan wakes up and gets ready to set his pigeons free. “I love the one who takes a huge flight,” he said.
Khan was six-year-old when he bought his first pigeon from his relative. His family didn’t accept his hobby for years but Khan resisted, reluctant to let his pigeon go.
A year later, his “friend” died. “I cried a lot that day,” he said, adding that he bought two pigeons after that.
In almost every neighborhood in Kashmir particularly in downtown Srinagar, a pigeon tower would be standing on the roof, marking the presence of Ko’tarbaaz in the area.
Ko’tarbaazi has been a major source of happiness in Khan’s life. “Seeing them around makes me feel good,” he said.
Khan believes that the passion of Ko’tarbaazi naturally comes to people. “It is in you,” he said.
Unlike Kashmir, in other parts of the country, the pigeon keepers hold contests of Ko’tarbaazi. “It doesn’t happen here on a larger scale,” said Khan.
Ko’tarbazi was introduced by the Mughal emperors in Kashmir, as per the pigeon keepers. Mughals would pass time through Ko’tarbaazi which would fascinate them. Not just in Kashmir, Ko’tarbaazi is a popular pastime in other states like Delhi, Agra, Chennai, Lucknow etcetera.
People have made the selling of pigeons their business now, said Khan. “We loved pigeons, we kept them, fed them, looked after them. Doesn’t seem the same now.”
Khan spends 5000 rupees per month in taking care and feeding his pigeons. For him, his pigeons are his family members.
He said for true pigeon keepers, buying pigeons completely depends on the birds’ eyes. Khan looked into the eyes of one of the birds in the cage and, said “see, the circles in its eyes. It’s a good one.”
Khan said that nobody can say how one learns the art of recognizing a good pigeon. “It takes a lifetime to learn the art.”