Between November and February, hundreds of pigeons are launched off terraces in the narrow lanes of Old Delhi daily from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., racing against each other to far-off places and returning to their exact locations.
This traditional winter sport of pigeon racing, or kabootarbaazi, historically found patronage in the courts of Mughal emperors, but eventually spread across the Indian subcontinent. According to author and historian Rana Safvi, keeping and caring for pigeons was considered akin to the act of ishaqbaazi or romance during the Mughal period.
In this sport, flocks of pigeons are pitted against each other, with the owner of the winning flock awarded the title of an ustad, or master.
“Pigeons are intelligent creatures. They know exactly where their home is and they always come back,” said Mohammad Islam, a resident of Turkman Gate.
The son of a former ustad, Mr. Islam is a doctor by profession. Alongside his sons Mohammad Faisal and Mohammad Bilal, he breeds nearly 600 pigeons, and trains them for competitions.
The birds are fed a diet of desi ghee, almonds, pistachios and walnuts, along with pepper and neem leaves. Most flocks feature one bird with the brighest plumage that serves as the marker bird during races.
India has over 100 varieties of racing pigeon, including Gola, Kabuli, Masakali, Magpie, Lahori, Ferozpuri, Rampuri, and Banka. While some are known for their flying prowess, others are renowned for their beauty. Some can fly for distances as long as 1,000 km.
Common pigeons like Masakalis, Kabulis and Golas cost between ₹300 and ₹500 each, while some rare varieties from Hyderabad may cost between ₹4 lakh and ₹6 lakh per bird, said Mr. Faisal.
Some breeders said the sport does not enjoy the same patronage as it once did due to higher expenses, lack of interest and complaints from local residents.
Mohammad Nasim, who has a flock of over 2,000 pigeons, said, “It is a hobby passed down from the Mughals, but our next generation is not interested in taking over.”
Historian Sohail Hashmi said some families have been maintaining the tradition for generations. “Pigeons were trained to send letters from court to court and were often intercepted or kidnapped to prevent messages from being exchanged. This act turned into a larger sport over the years, but we cannot pinpoint the exact time it started,” he added.