In the southern Indian city of Chennai, the pigeon racing season is reaching its climax. For pigeon keepers – or fanciers as they are known – it is a very important time of year. The wings of thousands of pigeons are routinely tested, the birds are watered and fed nutritious meals at regular intervals and much ground-work is laid for a race taking place in the skies.

Chennai is home to nearly half of India’s 7,000-strong fanciers, making it the “Mecca of pigeon racing.”

Between January and April, fanciers put their pigeons to participate in races of varying lengths ranging from 200 to 1,400 kilometers (120 – 870 miles).  The former maximum race length of 1,850 kilometers (1,140 miles) was removed after animal rights groups expressed concern over the health of the birds.

As the race for the final category is set to begin, all eyes are on the upcoming event. The winning birds will be sought after for breeding and the first bird to reach home earns its keeper a prize and the respect of his fellow fanciers.

A close-knit community of fanciers raising pigeons has been breaking many barriers in the last two decades as the sport, a passion for thousands of people in South Asia, gradually emerged from a hobby to a cultural phenomenon.

Pigeon racers prepare their birds with a combination of nutrition and training

More than two dozen clubs have cropped up in recent years providing platforms for the fanciers to exchange knowledge, updates and race against each other.

Pigeon racing, also popular in some parts of Europe, first appeared in the Indian cities Kolkata and Bengaluru in the 1940s and 1970s. In Chennai the sport gained popularity in the 1980s.

The Indian Racing Pigeon Association (IRPA) is the official body that conducts races and is recognized internationally. Several other smaller clubs also organize races on their own.

IRPA’s president, Ivan Philips, told DW that there has been steady growth in interest towards rearing pigeons for sporting purposes in India in the past decade. The number of pigeon fanciers grows between 10 percent and 20 percent every year, he said.

Philips says there are plans to conduct racing events twice a year, divided between younger and older birds.

“We have our own pigeon racing Olympics, which is conducted every two years,” he said.

“The next one is set to take place in Poland next year. We also have a two-day world congress for pigeon fanciers during which we discuss and share the latest developments in the sport from other countries. We decide on the future of pigeon racing in our countries for the next two years during the conference,” said Philips.


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