Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 16 News List

The kabooter baz: master of the skies

India is a place where pigeon handling remains an art form, and where, in a few small circles, great handlers are still revered

AP , New Delhi

Pigeons owned by Allaudin.

PHOTO: AP

When the sun is at its peak over the crumbling buildings of Delhi's old city and the midday call to prayer rings from a dozen mosques, a proud, soft-spoken man climbs three flights of steps to his uppermost rooftop.

There, amid the gentle cooing of hundreds of pigeons and the shouts of the men who love them, Allaudin becomes a master of the air, and a link to a disappearing sport of kings.

``These birds, they have feelings,'' says the graying man, a successful sweet shop owner who uses only one name. ``And I love these birds and they know that.''

Kabooter baz, they are called -- Urdu for ``pigeon handlers.'' Men like Allaudin have been training pigeons for hundreds of years, since this warren of crowded, filthy streets was one of the most elegant neighborhoods in South Asia.

``This was a sport of kings and nawabs,'' says Allaudin, referring to the Muslim royals who once ruled over much of what is modern-day India. ``Not many people are doing it in the old ways anymore.''

In India, pigeon handling was long the pastime of gentlemen. It is also, perhaps, the gentlest of sports.

Much of a kabooter baz's time is spent choreographing elaborate airborne dances: sending pigeons into the air, urging them to fly away and then calling them back with a cry of ``ahhhh-ohhhhh!'' and a hand motion like the scattering of seeds. In seconds, birds that were little more than distant speckles in the sky reappear in a gentle flapping of wings.

Only occasionally do things get overtly competitive, with races and contests and pigeon-swiping ploys, when one handler tries to lure someone else's birds into his flock.

But mostly, it's quiet daily rituals with the birds: feeding them, cooing to them, treating their ailments.

Or that is what it's like for men like Allaudin, a khalifa -- or master -- of the pigeon world. While there are thousands of pigeon handlers in old Delhi, there are only a few dozen khalifas, men who trained under earlier masters and for whom pigeon handling is a serious craft. To them, overt competition is crass.

``Young people today, they're not coming for the quality of the sport, but for the money and the competitiveness,'' Allaudin says sadly.

Not that he's truly above the competition. He laughs disdainfully about the skills of other pigeon handlers and says he wouldn't lower himself to visit another man's coops.

``I can call these people to my house,'' he says. ``But me going to them? Sorry.''

Once, hundreds of aristocrats and wealthy merchants flew pigeons from the rooftops of old Delhi, a maze of streets in a district that used to be the heart of a beautiful city.

These days, you have to squint to see the beauty, looking past dust as deep as a light snowfall, and scrap -- from broken pottery to mountains of car parts -- piled in the courtyards of centuries-old mansions.

It's a place where bicycle rickshaws navigate streets more like alleys, and where the alleys are so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch buildings on both sides.

It is only a few kilometers -- but an enormous economic leap -- to modern New Delhi, the southern neighborhoods carefully laid out by British colonial rulers in the early 1900s. As the city grew southward, sprouting districts of tree-shaded roads and bungalows, the center of power and money moved away from old Delhi, which has been largely left to the poor and the powerless.

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