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It was an everyday ritual. Sirdar Mohamed Osman and his father would go for their evening walk, a falcon perched on Osman's wrist and their dogs following behind. As this impressive entourage walked down the leafy roads of Dehradun, they would get a few curious glances, occasionally a smile. Nothing more. For the people of Dalanwala, Osman and his birds were part of the neighbourhood's landscape. It was a time when walking in Dehradun was still a pleasure and not the obstacle race it is today. We didn't know it then, but Dehradun was living out its last days as a retiree's paradise, a town of grey hair and green hedges.
That was nearly three decades ago. The landscape has changed much since then and the death of Osman in January has altered it yet again. Osman was perhaps the last of India's falconers. He knew that himself, often dismissing some of India's few remaining falconers as "pseudo falconers" and "bird-merchants" who reared falcons and hawks for the prize money they commanded.
Falconry was something he had inherited from his Afghan ancestors for whom it was a royal sport. Osman was a descendant of the erstwhile emperor of Afghanistan, Amir Dost Mohamed Khan. When the British exiled the family to India, they were sent to Dehradun where they set up home. In their new home, the family kept up their old passion for falconry, trapping and training falcons, hawks and eagles. Once a bird was trapped, it was always kept hooded, trained and then taken out for hunting. In fact, Osman himself made the gloves and hoods needed for falconry.
Falconry is an ancient hunting tradition, which originated in Central Asia thousands of years ago. Primarily practised as a means of procuring food with the help of trained raptors or birds of prey, it spread to many parts of the world and developed over the years as a traditional as well as royal sport in the Indian subcontinent.