Pigeon racers, though slammed by animal rights activists, keep the expensive traditional sport alive in Allahabad against odds

It was the male Pakistani hybrid who proved to be the game changer for Bindosh Kumar this summer. The ‘Ablagh’ clocked more than seven hours in the sky before returning home, overhauling his 11 team mates, and helped Bindosh thump past 79 other contestants and claim the crown of Sangam City or Allahabad’s top pigeon racer.

“A friend had gifted the Pakistani pigeon to me. Since the bird is too old to race, I decided to breed it with a local female pigeon and the result, as expected, was good,” says Bindosh, who received a motorbike worth Rs. 70,000 as a winner’s trophy.

An exponent of a sport locally termed ghirewazi or pigeon racing, 30-year-old Bindosh pairs different pigeons to develop a competitive edge and improve the breeds over time. Despite the decline in its popularity, urbanisation and the coming up of mobile towers, Bindosh and his co-fanciers are keeping alive a sport practised by their fathers and forefathers. At least two major pigeon racing tournaments are held in the old city of Allahabad every year, in summer and winter.

Like the usual practice among fanciers, Bindosh has a stock of around 250 pigeons on his terrace. Though he has an array of birds to choose from, he has his favourites — those who will ensure him victory.  Some of them are the Kalduma, Kalpara, Bajrahi, Kaldume Phulsari, Kaldume Makohi, Kalduma Makoha, Lal Kamra, Khurahi, Bhura and the Sabaz Makoha.

The male Ablagh with its enviable endurance, however, is his most valuable asset. Bindosh begins training his batch for the races a month prior to the event. While the basic rules of the game are somewhat similar all over the world, slight variations in rules and format might exist locally. It usually involves releasing a batch of pigeons who then return to their homes over a carefully measured time. Homing pigeons are those who race to return first to their homes after being released from a distance, usually ranging from 100 km to 1,000 km. A shorter version involves a dash, where the first bird to enter its home after the whistle is blown is declared winner.

In Allahabad, racing tipplers is more popular. It involves endurance. A batch of 12 birds is released early in the morning from their homes and the total combined time taken by them to return to their home decides the winner. More time the birds spend in the air the higher their rank.

Two observers from the opponent's team constantly monitor the flight. Serious races may require that the birds be seen every other minute or else they don't qualify. “It takes a lot of patience to train the birds,” says Bindosh. “Initially, it is important to let the bird acclimatise to you [the trainer] and once the comfort level is achieved, the bird will do as you want.”

The key though lies in the birds’ diet. Besides the regular diet of seeds, Bindosh feeds his birds a liquid made of mashed dry fruits and a special liquid made from goat’s milk. “This keeps the liver cool and controls thirst. It is important that they don’t feel hungry or thirsty for long hours. Or else they will fly home early,” he says. And that’s not desirable in the race.

It is remarkable that even in intense heat, the pigeons soar so high for long hours. The key to their stamina is the diet and training. The Ablaghs, for example, will fly and fly if not for the heat,” Bindosh further says.

Despite the routine training and strict diet, the birds are unavoidably exposed to hazards such as bad weather conditions, preying birds or high towers. Some may get disoriented and not complete the race while others may return injured. Some even die, especially during longer races, leading animal rights groups to term the sport “cruel” and ask for it to be scrapped.

When he’s not training pigeons, Bindosh supplies pet rabbits to Assam and West Bengal. That way he has no qualms about spending roughly Rs. 300 daily just to feed the birds. Given the rewards, it is not uncommon for fanciers to inject their birds with performance enhancing drugs. But Bindosh depends solely on natural food. At the end of it, he has developed a special bond with the birds, one that stretches beyond the rules of the race.