The city skies will play host to the Ernakulam Open Pigeon Flying Tournament in a week’s time.

Come June and with it the rains. But there’s another stirring action waiting to take wing among the clouds - the Ernakulam Open Pigeon Flying Tournament. Starting from June 10, for three months, till August 31, the skies will host, daily, two to three competing birds of 200 participants and die-hard hobbyists. They will showcase the flying prowess of their pet pigeons. All in the fray are excitedly looking at setting and breaking the current record of 13 hours 18 minutes held by Manish T.A.

Pigeon flying has a long history of existence in the country and a 35-year-old history in the city. This Mughal period artistry and hobby was once a common sport and has filtered down the ages remaining a passionate legacy. It is still followed with great enthusiasm in small pockets of the country. A national championship of the sport is held annually.

In Ernakulam the hobby-cum-sport is popular in Mattancherry and Fort Kochi with two organisations, the Cochin Pigeon Flying Association (CPFA) and the Cochin Dove Flying Association (CDFA), holding regular tournaments and keeping alive this rare engagement.

Manish T.A., secretary of the Open Flying Tournament says, “We encourage everybody to participate. The main feature of the pigeons is that they are the high flying variety. Compared to the ordinary pigeon these can fly continuously for several hours together.”

Sudheer K.H., a participant and a member of the association says, “the type that we fly here is a cross between the local breed and the Homer variety, the letter-carrying pigeon.”

Training a pigeon is like training a newborn child. It takes a minimum of 50 days to train the bird. The birds are bought from all over the country, Kolkata and Tiruchi being favourite places for owners in the city.

Sudheesh talks with visible delight about his passion. He has brought his birds from Punjab, the ‘Rampuri’ variety. He explains about rearing and training them. “A special diet of ragi and calcium tablets is given to the birds. We have to build their strength and stamina. The birds are sunbathed daily. They are trained about sunlight and darkness. It is important for the bird to recognise the passage of time and make itself visible to the umpires monitoring their flight. Hence we teach them about keeping time, lowering itself to be visible and about landing.”

The rules of the competition are simple. The birds are known by a particular identification mark. A seal is imprinted on their tail. This happens either the previous day of the competition or on the same day. The competition begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. An umpire oversees the day’s proceedings. In the first hour of flight the bird is to show itself every 15 minutes, after which it lowers itself to be seen by the hour. In the last hour of flight it lowers itself and is to be marked every 15 minutes. The pigeon should land within 50 metres from the place of takeoff. The competition is generally held during the rainy season as hot summer months tire the bird.

Dr P.B. Prasad, working at Government Women and Children Hospital in Mattancherry has been the All Kerala Champion from 1992 to 1998. He is one of the stalwarts of the sport and the feat of his doves ‘God’ and ‘Devil’ are still talked about with adulation. Dr. Prasad has an interesting tale to share about his turning a pigeon flier. He was curious about the sport but when someone remarked that it was not as simple as getting an MBBS degree he felt challenged. Ask him about the strange names of his birds and he says, “One of them was a beautiful white and the other a strange colourless variety. That’s why I named them God and Devil. Both the birds set records.” He says, adding that the current scene has changed in terms of prize money. “It has increased significantly. Even gold coins are given as prizes. Earlier each team was given a fee of Rs. 100. It was such a craze then.” P.J. Antony from Amaravathi, a contract welder at Cochin Shipyard, is another well known flier. He holds the record for being the first to fly his pigeon for 14 hours and a minute. “There are 25 rules to follow,” he says, rattling off the names which include a former mayor, eminent doctors and locality stalwarts who revelled in the sport-cum-hobby.

All participants talk in one voice about their unique passion, their pet pigeons and their priceless performances.”