Agra: Thousands of pigeons are getting ready for Agra`s skies -- to respond to catcalls and shouts from excited "kabootar baz" (pigeon flyers) in the small residential neighbourhoods of the Taj city.
Agra`s pigeon flyers are all set for a battle royale in the traditional sport of "kabootarbazi" when thousands of these birds flown.
More than 10,000 pigeons are being trained at half a dozen locations by "khalifas" - master trainers. They come from distant places for the week-long contest called "kul-kul" that begins Dec 25.
"Whole day, groups of youngsters do nothing but fly pigeons. Many a time there are violent fights as birds from one group land on another`s terrace," says Arif, a pigeon flyer from Loha Mandi.
"The Mughals were great patrons of some of India`s ancient sports. Many of the traditional sports are now dying a slow death," lamented Dinesh Choudhary, whose one-man mission to revive the glory of "kul-kul days" has won him many admirers and supporters in the city.
Choudhary told IANS: "We are doing all this on our own steam. The government bodies should come forward and provide support as the sport considerably helps cement Hindu-Muslim ties, apart from promoting sportsmanship."
This year the contest will see different teams of pigeons taking off from the Chalesar area simultaneously and landing back at the same place.
Through shouts and catcalls the trainers will try to get the pigeons of other teams to leave flock and join their group while in air. Eventually, the team that returns to the ground with the maximum number of birds will be the winner.
This year, a team from Delhi will also join the contest for the first time. Teams from neighbouring districts are also participating.
The first phase of the tournament, called "sullah," began Tuesday at Raipura Jat. For the next three days before the competition starts, there will be sullahs in several other areas.
"These are more like rehearsals. The pigeons get acclimatised and get to know the landing grounds during the sullahs," explained Choudhary.
"The training is strenuous. The birds have to take off and land at the same base," Nasir Hussain, a passionate fan of kabootarbazi, said.
He said that each group will have more than 600 birds and when it lands, the numbers usually rise or fall. The trainers try to mislead and confuse birds of other groups to swell their own numbers.
The popularity of the sport had been sliding until six years ago, when a bureaucrat with a passion for it gave the much needed boost by organising a contest behind the Taj Mahal.
"It`s a costly passion. The birds have to be fed on dry fruits and looked after carefully. Pigeons are very delicate birds," said Choudhary, who is also the president of the tournament organising committee.
The birds are given protein-rich food, bajra with dry fruits, butter and a special roti that strengthens their wings. It can cost up to Rs.1,000 a day for one group of birds.
The birds are trained to recognise colours, the trainer`s shouts and sounds, his flying commands and landing orders. It is believed that many masters tame the birds with doses of opium.
The biggest threat to the pigeons is the increasing nuisance from monkeys.
Roller Singh, a veterinary doctor, said: "Agra`s monkey population is growing. Many cases of monkeys attacking or breaking the darbas (pigeon cages) have been reported. These cages are normally kept on the rooftops."