Culture

Before The Pigeons Fled

Baiting, bird fighting and kite flying had once been the fashionable leisure pursuits of the Babus of Calcutta who showcased their wealth shamelessly while pursuing their pastimes. Bulbul fights and pigeon races were particularly popular and the rich families in the city would often spend a fortune over these contests and indulged in betting. The champion birds were given gold chain and their trainers heavily rewarded for enhancing the status and fame of the victorious Babu.


It was June 23, 1860. An open ground near Kumartuli in North Kolkata saw a huge gathering to watch bird fights between the two well known Babus – Dayal Mitra and Raja Narsimha Roy, a landed aristocrat from Posta. Roy was the grandson of Ramdulal Sarkar and nephew of Latubabu. Each Babu owned thousands of Bulbuls which were engaged in an epic battle stretching for nearly eight hours. Undoubtedly, it was a big event and Sambad Prabhakar, a well known vernacular daily edited by Iswar Gupta carried reports of the contests for three consecutive days.

Gupta gave a detailed account; the venue was decorated with coloured flags and buntings. There were drummers and trumpets players. The Babus arrived in their six horse drawn respective phaetons; the supporters of Roy occupied the northern side of the field and those of Mitra were in the southern side while the bird cages were placed in the middle of the ground. At exactly 6 am, conch shells were blown and the Bulbuls were released from their cages and the battle begun.

The Bulbuls were ferocious since they had not been given any food for two days. Just before the battle begun, they were fed opium laced water to increase their ferocity and as soon as the doors of the cages were opened the released birds pounced upon each other amidst cheering from spectators. Initially, Mitra’s birds suffered a setback. But with the passage of time, they regained strength and by noon most of the birds of Roy got killed. According to Iswar Gupta, “Eke eke Rajajir bhalo pakhi shob, Mitrajir pakhir kache holo parabhab,” (One after another the strong birds of Narsimha Roy were defeated by those belonging to Mitra).” The fight ended at 2pm. Over 2000 Bulbuls belonging to Roy were killed. Mitra looked complacent and joyous. His admirers were also elated. The entire area was covered with blood and screams of the heavily injured birds. Roy looked visibly angry and went up to the two youths, Nilkanta and Ramkamal who had trained his birds. He smeared their faces with tar and then whipped them for failing to train up the birds properly since the defeat had brought shame to the Roy family.

Pigeon fights were also equally popular. In a pigeon fight, two birds were let free and the bird that covered the most distance within a It was June 23, 1860. An open ground near Kumartuli in North Kolkata saw a huge gathering to watch bird fights between the two well known Babus – Dayal Mitra and Raja Narsimha Roy, a landed aristocrat from Posta. Roy was the grandson of Ramdulal Sarkar and nephew of Latubabu. Each Babu owned thousands of Bulbuls which were engaged in an epic battle stretching for nearly eight hours. Undoubtedly, it was a big event and Sambad Prabhakar, a well known vernacular daily edited by Iswar Gupta carried reports of the contests for three consecutive days.

Gupta gave a detailed account; the venue was decorated with coloured flags and buntings. There were drummers and trumpets players. The Babus arrived in their six horse drawn respective phaetons; the supporters of Roy occupied the northern side of the field and those of Mitra were in the southern side while the bird cages were placed in the middle of the ground. At exactly 6 am, conch shells were blown and the Bulbuls were released from their cages and the battle begun.

The Bulbuls were ferocious since they had not been given any food for two days. Just before the battle begun, they were fed opium laced water to increase their ferocity and as soon as the doors of the cages were opened the released birds pounced upon each other amidst cheering from spectators. Initially, Mitra’s birds suffered a setback. But with the passage of time, they regained strength and by noon most of the birds of Roy got killed. According to Iswar Gupta, “Eke eke Rajajir bhalo pakhi shob, Mitrajir pakhir kache holo parabhab,” (One after another the strong birds of Narsimha Roy were defeated by those belonging to Mitra).” The fight ended at 2pm. Over 2000 Bulbuls belonging to Roy were killed. Mitra looked complacent and joyous. His admirers were also elated. The entire area was covered with blood and screams of the heavily injured birds. Roy looked visibly angry and went up to the two youths, Nilkanta and Ramkamal who had trained his birds. He smeared their faces with tar and then whipped them for failing to train up the birds properly since the defeat had brought shame to the Roy family.

Pigeon fights were also equally popular. In a pigeon fight, two birds were let free and the bird that covered the most distance within a stipulated time was declared the winner. There were professional whistlers and drummers who could make different sorts of sound to call back the pigeons. At times pigeons would not be able to complete the race, often killed by birds of prey or lost their way and died midway. The rich owners often took the help of poachers who laid trap and caught their birds. Most of the owners had little love for the birds as many of them were punished and killed for losing the race.

In 1854, Chedi Dutta, a rich beniya had lost Rs 5000 to Latubabu during a pigeon fight. The Bengali traders and middlemen actually copied their East India Company bosses as the sahibs from England kept birds; it became a fashion among the rich to imitate them.
Cock fight was introduced in Calcutta after Nawab Wajed Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh came to live at Metiabruz from Lucknow shortly after the Sepoy Mutiny. He brought his staff and menials who used to organise cock fights in Lucknow. Two cocks were brought to the arena and knives were tied to their legs. The cock that killed its rival was declared winner. The game was confined with the Muslim community only. Wajed Ali Shah was however, a bird lover and took the initiative to set up a bird sanctuary which later became the Alipore Zoo. The zoo is still called chiriakhana meaning a bird sanctuary.

From 1890s the so called aristocrat, the cream of Bengali society had their place taken by educated upper middleclass with English education. They picked up Western habits, read books and the bird cages were replaced by libraries with rich collection. Bulbul fights became a matter of the past while pigeon and cock fights became restricted to the middle class and lower middle class. Till 1970s there were youths who reared pigeons and regular fights were organised in winter. The roofs of houses had small coops for the birds and the youths became expert trainers. From 1980s many of the old buildings were pulled down to make room for highrise apartments where the builders took the roof rights and so there was no space to keep the birds. The sport slowly went into oblivion. Every Sunday birds are still sold in Hatibagan but now the bulk purchasers are from the district towns.

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