By Gulal Salil
Are all pigeons flocks in the sky necessarily wild? Could they be part of a ten-thousand-year old culture, hidden under the growing urban decay of the 21st century?
“On a warm summer evening in 1985, below a sky filled with uncountable flights of pigeons, a young boy of 11 stood watching from afar. The norm was to not let the younger ones get intimate with the game of ladat. It was addictive, and a waste of time. Groups of pigeon fanciers hooted and whistled in sync with the rhythmic dance of the birds as they soared the skies from one chowk to the other in the bustling heart of Pune city. The boy stared as one of the lots impatiently searched the sky. A pigeon had gone missing. A racer pigeon, perhaps.
Half an hour later, as the fanciers of the flock gave up hope, a tea-seller came holding five cups of chai. They took out money but the vendor refused. “Unn sahab ne de diye paise”, he said, pointing to a man on a terrace. This was enough indication that the ladat had ended. The missing pigeon had landed there, and it was now the man’s to own. He had won the match. His dhabal had gotten its newest, and rather expensive addition. It was time to go home. The boy, Pratap Singh Rajput, would later go on to become a popular baazigar.”
The Game of Ladat
Pigeon fancying is a culture older than the legend of Bajirao and Mastani. It became a commoner’s activity as time did away with monarchy and colonial India brought major drive for it in the by-lanes of Pune.
Termed a sport in contemporary history, pigeon fancying is not just about domesticating birds. It has two forms. One is the local sport of ladat, which is Indic for battle or competition. The other is the global sport of racing pigeons. The former has found a great base in Pune, while the latter is relatively new.
Ladat is about catching pigeons of other shelters while they are in flight. Pigeons are released twice in the day from all dhabals or pigeon shelters — once before noon and once in the early evening. The birds are fed and they rise in flight as their baazigars or players whistle and hoot in birdy tone
Sometimes, one baazigar’s pigeons enter another flock in flight, which is where the game begins. The sport is to attract lost pigeons down to land, which is done by seducing them. A female pigeon is put up in the sky and hushed to fly short every time the flight goes overhead. It is a long, drawn out game, and ladat is this activity of ‘catching’ a pigeon once it lands. The estranged pigeon doesn’t necessarily come down with the entire flight, even if the flock makes a landing.
Fanciers often spend hours on winning a match by hushing the flight again in order to get that one pigeon down. This is probably why the younger lot are dissuaded from indulging in the gamble. It is addictively filled with excitement.
It has seen passionate battles between age-old comrades, and also seen bitter feuds, sometimes leading to murders.
Taking off with Vasubhau
Vasubhau is a sweet character who set up his dhabal near Baba Bhide Bridge about twenty years ago. A kachchi dabeli and egg bhurji seller by occupation, he takes a break from duty at 11 AM and 4 PM to take care of his 150 birds. He has lived around pigeon tamers all his life.
It is a challenging and expensive responsibility which goes beyond admiring them. “I have to. I developed this hobby and I can’t just domesticate them and leave them on their own now. Mera bachchalog jaisa hai,” he says with deep lines on his forehead as he examines them closely.
His expenditure on his dhabal can reach about two hundred rupees a day, which is a lot for his daily earnings. His shelter is also partly dilapidated, so it has to be kept exceptionally clean at all times, as pigeon droppings are potential breeding grounds for infection.
In fact, there is a specific disease eponymously named ‘Pigeon Fancier’s lungs.’ When asked about that, Vasubhau shrugs it off, “I have been a fancier for 20 years now, nothing has happened to me. I keep my dhabal clean.”
Vasubhau treats me to chai as his friends connect me with three other fanciers. I go and meet Safa Arjun Vandre at Paud Phata with Vinayak, who is an autorickshaw driver and an ace at the matches.
Safa Arjun Vandre & co.
Vandre is a 62-year-old retired construction worker. Located on a rock under the flyover, he has about 200 pigeons in his dhabal and they have just caught one more. Vandre started his dhabal out of cartons. Back in the 80s, a standard pigeon would cost 2 to 4 rupees at the market near the Municipal Corporation Office. He bought around twenty of them, he fed them, trained them, played them and lost some. Then he bought some 20 more in a cycle.
Admiring his birds, he says, “On an average, pigeons live for around 11 to 12 years. The oldest one I have is now 16.”
Vandre owns the dhabal, but it is taken care of by himself, his friends and curious youngsters alike. Pigeon fancying and especially ladat is a community effort. It is a space for social gathering. Ganesh Yadav, one of Vandre’s friends says, “Rather than fooling around doing silly things to pass time, it is better to come here and spend some time with friends catching pigeons.”
Around fifteen people suddenly look up as a black shiny-feathered pigeon is caught flying with Vandre’s flock. Vinayak loudly meeps at them after they are hushed off land, for the fourth time, in an effort to catch it. However, it is time to meet Pratap Singh Rajput.
The Adventure of Shantidoot
Shantidoot Pakshi Mitra Association is a pigeon fanciers association presided by Vilas Ladkat with over 1200 members spread across Pune. It was founded by Pratap Singh Rajput in 2013. The occupational advocate grew up in Rajendranagar watching people sporting pigeons all around him. In what seemed like natural order, he adventurously bought his first pigeons in the 7th standard, but he was beaten black and blue by his father, who felt that his child would go astray. That didn’t stop him though. Pratap once challenged a bully who threatened him by saying that he’d catch all of his pigeons. Eventually, the 13-year-old won more pigeons than he had initially lost to the bully, solely by his hand at ladat.
The same spirit remained as he grew up and formed the association. The first member was a friend who told Pratap without hesitation, “Here’s Rs 500, sign me up”, handing over the application to him. He says, “The minimum fee was 200 rupees, but it was upto the people to give how much ever they wanted to. Some gave a thousand, some didn’t give anything, but it was all okay as long as there was support, which it had.”
Pratap is a proud baazigar who also makes his own ayurvedic treatments for sick birds. He has taught his 12-year old son all about them and historical baazigars like Dattoba Mankar, Jyotiba Shendkar and so on. He tells me how the other sport, pigeon racing is a new phenomenon in Pune and I am reminded of someone Baba More told me about.
Fancying at 17
Swapnil Ramchandra More is young at 26, and works as a contractor. Yet, he seems to know a lot about the history of pigeon fancying in the city. Recalling how he started his dhabal near Vasubhau’s, he says, “I was sitting in class, idly looking out the window, when i saw a pigeon land on a window pane. Me and my friends caught it after class and mated it. We got more pigeons from the eggs and then we bought a few from the market.”
Baba More tells me about how Pune has had a history of people getting very sentimental about ladat matches. There have been times when fanciers have assaulted each other. “Khoon bhi hue hain baba”, he says in a hushed tone, remarking how the game becomes an issue of prestige for some. Some people choose to trade off pigeons against their grain bills, or deny giving them back at all once caught, while some recognize the friendliness in the game and don’t haggle.
For More, it is an established fact that he proudly claims, “If a pigeon lands on my dhabal, I don’t return it.” However, it is his demeanour otherwise that helps. His connections are many, and all share a brotherly vibe. With a captivating introduction, he urges me to meet pigeon racer legend, Bhai Purohit.
Pigeon Racing Legend Bhai Purohit
Rumour has it, Bhai Purohit once gave a flock of racer pigeons to the Queen of England as a gift and one of them came flying all the way back to his loft in India. By digging into the source, I am educated otherwise.
Bhai Purohit was a pigeon fancier who passed away long ago. Two of his sons took over the property after him at Dagdusheth Chowk, and as the younger one named Hemant Purohit reached college, he started learning about pigeons. His brother and him eventually got into the sport of racing pigeons, where the dynamics of ladat don’t apply. Pigeon racing is an international sport which has its feathers in a lot of countries, and Pune is a relatively new spot. The sport has pigeons which fly mammoth distances. Such birds are defined by their greater wingspans which makes them sprinters or distance runners. While there have been instances of ladat pigeons flying from Satara to Pune in search of their home, racer pigeons are known to cover distances as long as Delhi to Chennai. Races are held every year between January and May.
Hemant’s interest in the sport was fueled by his mentor and guide, R R Prasad from Chennai, who is an internationally-acclaimed figure. Impressed by his observations, Prasad rewarded him with a few racers after which Hemant became an educated racer going beyond local knowledge. Commenting on the lack of resources in the country, Hemant tells me, “India lacks literature on pigeons still because it is an unrecognized sport here. While it is seen as a waste of time here, governments in countries like Belgium fund it!”
The complex diet on which these birds are sustained is also a lot more regimented and the challenges are expansive. Medicines for racers are rare in India. Poultry medication is often altered to treat illnesses. Then there is a natural hazard as there are much more ferocious predators such as shikras, birds which specifically hunt racers in flight.
As a sport, pigeon fancying is a terrific activity. However, the morality of the whole idea of taming birds and keeping them caged is a matter of great debate. Hemant says, “I get where the question comes from, however, these species have gotten created by humans over thousands of years of taming them. If I leave them out in the wild, they won’t survive for more than two days. In a way, i am doing a service to the species, and to the civil community because i also control their populations in this way.”
The moral question is perhaps better left for another time. For now, it is fascinating to keep looking up as the birds fly overhead, and realise that they are not necessarily a wild coincidence.
The author, Gulal Salil, is a journalist and graphic artist. He explores cultural, social and theoretical arguments in his narratives.
This post was first published on The Golden Sparrow, and can be found on Gulal’s Medium page.
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