City Life – Bird Flying, Matia Mahal
The traditional pastime.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
They fly away but always come back. Mateen Qureshi, 26, the owner of Shireen Bhawan sweetshop in Matia Mahal bazaar, has the largest collection of pigeons in Old Delhi. The Delhi Walla is on his roof, on the fourth floor of his house. The roof has half a dozen giant birdcages, called jaalis.
It is evening. The mullah in a nearby mosque has just finished crying out the azaan, calling the faithful to prayer. Mr Qureshi will first finish his chore. “It’s time for the daily rounding (sic),” he says. A boy on the neighboring rooftop is flying a kite.
Mr Qureshi opens the jaalis one by one and the birds, instead of flying away to freedom, hop onto the roof, picking on the grain spread out on the floor. Mr Qureshi whistles and the birds are suddenly agitated. They make a great noise with their wings and flutter away in one group, making circles over Daryaganj, Turkman Gate, Sitaram Bazaar and Jama Masjid, the neighbourhoods that make up the Walled City, which was founded by Mughal emperor Shahjahan in 1639.
The bird flying is an Old Delhi tradition that is still flourishing. On summer evenings (afternoons in the winter), the Walled City rooftops are crowded with men – young and old – sending their birds for ‘rounding’ trips. In earlier times, there were great rivalries between different rooftops. Ali’s birds would trap a few of Abdul’s birds during the ‘rounding’ and bring them to Ali. (Abdul would have his revenge, of course.) Rather than buying pigeons from the bird bazaar in front of the Red Fort, a cunning owner increased his stock by this ‘day-light robbery’. “Now nobody any longer captures other people’s birds,” Mr Qureshi says.
In 2009, the Hindi film Delhi 6 celebrated the tradition in the song Masakkali Maskakali, in which the actress is seen running around the rooftop with a pigeon in her hands. In City of Djinns – One Year in Delhi, author William Dalrymple devoted a chapter to pigeons. Of course, this custom is not exclusive to Delhi. Set in Uttar Pradesh, Muzaffar Ali’s film Umrao Jaan begins with a pigeon flying scene. “Until 20 years ago, only about 15 rooftops in Old Delhi flew birds,” Mr Qureshi says. “But now there are 100 such roofs.”
Why is pigeon flying confined to the Muslim part of Delhi? “This tradition probably came out from the elite of Shahjahanabad,” says author Sadia Dehlvi, referring to Old Delhi’s original name. “And while the nobility has disappeared, the infatuation for pigeons has stayed on with the residents.”
Author RV Smith, a chronicler of Delhi, says, “The pigeon flying reached its zenith in Agra during the reign of Akbar. When Shahjahan built his new capital in Delhi, much of its noble gentry were imported from Agra. Along with their riches, they brought the passion for pigeons in this city.”
A few minutes pass and now Mr Qureshi is crying out out ‘Aao Aao’. The pigeons make a swift turn and land on the roof.
Come back safe