PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 8:00am
A flock of pigeons take off from a Lahore roof top at dawn, rising above the city’s Mughal-era minarets before disappearing out of sight.
Rather than being viewed as pests, these birds are champions of endurance who evoke a passionate following across Pakistan.
It is a love affair ... I can tell the worth of each bird by looking at the eyes and feathers
“It is a love affair,” says Akhlaq Khan, a famous octogenarian pigeon-fancier and author of the only book on the subject in Pakistan. “You don’t see anything there, no difference between the birds,” he said, cradling a plump bird with a white body and coloured head. “But I can tell the worth of each bird by looking at the eyes and feathers.”
On his rooftop in a leafy district of Pakistan’s cultural capital, hundreds of birds are cooing in massive light blue cages in the sweltering Punjabi summer.
In film and folklore, pigeons, or kabootar are associated with love letters destined for harems and for military orders sent to champion warriors by kings of yesteryear.
“Flying breeds in India were introduced by the Mughals,” says Khan referring to the Muslim dynasty that ruled the subcontinent from the early 16th century till the mid-19th.
Pigeon followers broadly class the birds into those known for their competitive flying ability, and those prized for their looks.
Akbar the Great was renowned for his pigeon passion, and, according to one scholar of the court “had 20,000 birds of different types,” said Khan.