As spring slowly transitions into summer and the sweltering sun begins to bake the redbrick roofs of Lahore, pigeon fanciers of the cultural capital start to toil in anticipation of the big games.
A lot has gone into preparations this year. Several months’ worth of hard work for some, for others a lifetime’s worth of investment and labour, to be precise. Yet all sits at stake of what could be considered the World Cup equivalent of pigeon racing— a grim industry which has grown to enormous proportions, bleeding through the network of grubby rooftops which populate the old city.
According to Malik Mubashir Khokhar, a resident of Jati Umrah area of Lahore, and one of the grand masters of pigeon rearing, the sport has been in his family for generations, much like many other old-hands. “The big competition’s due to begin in May and will last till June. Every racer in Lahore, be they new to the sport or old, has their eyes set on the first prize. That’s all anyone can think of right now,” said the rarer.
Several of Khokhar’s pigeons, including three named Janlewa, Teddy and Tyson, have won various Pakistan-level medals in the past. Although they still have to be trained all year round to keep up with the competition, the birds he will be launching this year had their feathers plucked some time ago, which are expected to grow out soon. “The plucking of flight feathers is important to prevent them from molting during game season,” he explained.
When the newcomers are ready for flight, they will need to be trained and will rehearse their route. From then, up until game day, they’ll be fed a diet fit for a king, which will include dried fruits like almonds and raisins with a dressing of gold and silver leaves, saffron, true pearls and a rub of various ointments. “Sometimes certain racers will even try injecting their birds with some kind of serum which is supposed to temporary boost their strength, but that’s never good for the bird,” told Khokhar.
When time comes for the pigeons to take flight, they will not only be racing against time but also for their life. Each bird will be launched into the sky, where it will be flying for over 12-13 hours without break in the searing heat of the mid-summer sun, which is likely to boil up to 45 to 46 degrees Celsius. Several birds will fall out of the sky due to exhaustion and the one to land last will win it all. It will be a matter of survival of the fittest, where the only outcomes are glory or gore.
“These are no ordinary pigeons. They are specifically bred over generations to enable them to soar through the sky for hours on end. Which is why it costs millions of rupees to procure a quality bird, making the race quite a gamble,” said Syed Turab Haider, another professional pigeon racer. “But where the price is high, so is the reward. Thousands of motorcycles and hundreds of small cars are up for grabs among grand prizes, each year. If your bird wins, it can really make you a fortune,” he told The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2021.