Context & Culture

War Doves: The Afghan sport of pigeon flying


It is a familiar sight in Kabul’s springtime skies: pigeons flying in thick flocks, circling and dipping, reacting to a man on a rooftop waving a stick. Kaftar bazi or the Play of Pigeons is an Afghan national sport – one of the calmer sort. This doesn’t mean it isn’t highly competitive. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looked into the history of this favorite pastime and learned the ropes visiting some of Kabul’s experts. Tips included feeding pigeons coke and butter and finding an alluring female to lead the flock.

Pigeons and doves hold a high position among domestic animals in the Muslim societies of Central and South Asia. They are even sometimes considered sacred, like those populating the Shrine of Ali in Mazar-e Sharif, all white, for every other-coloured bird would be whitened by the sanctity of the shrine in a 30-day span, or those of many a sacred building in Peshawar. Sometimes religious popularity endows their flight with the ability to forecast future events, like in the opening scene of the movie Junoon (Shyam Benegal, 1973), set amidst the Pathan rebels in 1857-58 Rohilkhand, where a qalandar sees the bloodshed of the impending revolt against the British in the scattering of pigeons (indeed, the novel from which the movie was taken titled ‘A flight of Pigeons’ – see our previous Chat Mat here) (1)

However, in nowadays Afghanistan one sees more often pigeons of every color and type flying in thick flocks over houses, seemingly remotely controlled by a person on a nearby rooftop, who whistles and wields a long stick with a piece of cloth on it. As a reaction, the birds take off all together and draw a certain number of circles over the block, exhibiting a remarkable display of skill in sudden turns, nose-ups and dives, then, quietly and quickly, settle down on their home rooftop.

These precise flight exercises are part of a very popular sport in most of Afghanistan, called kaftar bazi – play of pigeons. The pigeon-dotted sky of Kabul bears a close resemblance to that of many Central Asian and Indian cities of past centuries; the Mughal emperors in fact, and among them the most famous, Akbar (1556-1605), conspicuously so, were incredibly fond of it. As Akbar’s close collaborator and court historian Abu l-Fazl Allami put it in the Ain-e Akbari, the monumental report about Akbar’s court and governance:

…The amusement which his majesty derives from the tumbling and flying of the pigeons reminds one of the ecstasy and transport of enthusiastic dervishes; he praises God for the wonders of creation. 

From the very introduction of the chapter dealing about pigeon flying – which Akbar called ishq bazi (play of love) – it is apparent how much the emperor was famous among his contemporaries for reveling in this favorite pastime, therefore the need for his chronicler to justify such a seemingly trivial passion.(2) The author deals at length with how Akbar was fond of pigeon flying in his youth, abandoned it in his adulthood, but then ‘on mature consideration’ took it up again. Abu l-Fazl goes to a very great length to extol his majesty’s passion over that of his ‘plebeian’ subjects, engaged in very similar enterprises, although on a smaller scale:

This occupation affords the ordinary run of people a dull kind of amusement, but His Majesty, in his wisdom, makes it a study.

The court historian further delves into the care that Akbar bestowed on pigeon breeding, even mentioning the names of some of his sovereign’s choice champions: Ashki (Weeper), Parizad (Fairy-born), Almas (Diamond). These and other royal birds were trained in performing special aerial movements such ascharkh, a full loop, and bazi, a way of flying belly-up before turning back on normal attitude.

Akbar pushed his passion for pigeons to the borders of intellectual engagement, when he classified different categories of pigeons ranked for the value of their breed and marks, and had a book written on the subject also with a view to regulating the prices of the burgeoning pigeon trade, so that:

Many a poor man anxious to make his way has found in the training of superior pigeons a means of getting rich. 

In fact, nobles at the Mughal court had massively taken up the pastime, and flocks of pigeons grew ever larger – from the customary eleven or twenty-one pigeons each of the old times to as many as hundred and one during Akbar’s reign – while Abu l-Fazl deems it difficult to count the pigeons present at court, but estimates them at ‘more than twenty thousands’.(3)

Thousands of pigeons crowd the sky of today’s Kabul, too. Less famous than the other rooftop pastime – kite-flying – kaftar bazi is only slightly less popular. In Afghanistan, however, pigeon flying is serious business and not a pastime for bored monarchs. Called also aref bazi (play of connaisseurs) it consists actually of a series of matches between opposite teams, something which not all un-trained eyes may be able to discern.

Pigeons may be either bought or bred by the pigeon-fliers, and after they reach sexual maturity (around six months) they start to be trained for the competition. Young pigeons get used to the tor, the pole with a net and a black cloth at its top. When they are grown-up they get reduced amounts of their daily food and are then let out to fly mornings and evenings: hunger is one of two important factors in making the pigeons fly and come back. Trained to receive their food only after the flight, they are always keen to come back to their home-rooftop: therefore pigeons must fly ‘empty’. As for the other one it is, as the French would put it, ‘cherchez la femme’. The whole flock of pigeons, all rigorously male, follow the lead of one female pigeon who is also entrusted to lure them home at the end of the flight, bringing with them as many additional male stray rivals as they can in the occasion of a match.

Matches involve two flocks of pigeons which two rival keepers set free after previous agreement or under direct challenge (ie. enemy pigeons flying over foreign rooftops). The two flocks of pigeons mingle and start flying together in patterns which follow their habits or training, and always following the female-leads, then, after a series of twists and turns, head home. It is then that pigeons that got tired or confused might end up following the opposite flock and land on hostile rooftops where they are captured with the tor. The original owner has then to pay a ransom to the winner to secure their release.

So, where to start if somebody wanted to put together a good, competitive flock of pigeons for the next fighting season (it starts in October and goes on until late May)? Pigeons are of course sold in the Kah Forushi area (meaning ‘straw market’ but actually famous as a bird market) in the old city of Kabul. However, those on sale in the main bazaar are not the best choice; a real aref (connaisseur) would rather follow the breeder home – or better on his rooftop – to see his best stock and enjoy a demonstration of the birds’ skills.

Exceptional pigeons can cost even up to one lakh (100,000 Afghani, 2000 dollars) but this is seldom the case.  These specimens are seldom made to fly and rather kept for decoration or as breeders. More commonly, the price for a pigeon starts from 500 or 1000 Afghani (10 to 20 dollars), so that a typical flock of 30 pigeons would require an initial investment of 15,000 to 30,000 Afghani (300 to 600 dollars).

Then of course, they need training and proper nourishment. At the time of Mughal ruler Akbar, pigeons used to get only pure millet, but today the dietary prescriptions are far more varied. One owner in Kabul used to mix a little whiskey with their food to make his pigeons ‘lighter’ when in flight; another tried yet another ‘doping’ trick by administering chars (hashish) to his birds, but, reportedly, these went more often loose and got lost on their way home. Other favorite treats for winged champions are soft drinks like coke, or butter in the evening and a bath in the morning.

(1) On pigeons, Thomas Ruttig signals the following Pashto proverb, included in Jens Enevoldsen’s collection recorded in the 1960s (Peshawar 2000):

pe diwal dwa kautare nast di,

yawa kuku kri, bela dzan sambalawina.

two pigeons are sitting on the wall,

one makes kookoo, the other is packing her bags

(2) A pastime which, one could argue, entails at least more skills and efforts than feeding swans in the parks, more typical for royals at European latitudes…

(3) There were also pigeons trained in special skills, like one who would ‘go through all the motions which a half-killed fowl goes through’. These of course were kept more as wondrous curiosities.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture