I looked at the skyline filled with white and grey. Pigeons of multiple tints claim the expanse. A man stares up at the sky and calls to the pigeons; they fly back and settle around the edge of the roof of his house. We are in the narrow lanes of Old Delhi (popularly known as Delhi 6) and today the sky seems as crammed with pigeons as the alleys do with people. We are in the midst of the season of "kabootarbazi" or pigeon-racing, a tradition that has its origins in the Mughal era and which local residents have kept alive over the ensuing eras.
The sporting season begins from November and continues until February. You need a special breed of pigeons for the sport and these are purchased by the kabootarbaz (pigeon trainers) from Agra, Punjab and even from Hyderabad. These birds are rigorously trained to fly against the wind.
The race is between two flocks of pigeons belonging to two different groups. The group of pigeons that flies the farthest against the wind and returns back to its owner following the same route within the given time span is the winner.
Referees are deployed on rooftops to keep a record of the race. The referees also count the number of pigeons in a flock before they fly and after they return. If more than five pigeons from the respective group diverge from their flock, then the kabootarbaz loses.
The pigeon trainers are passionate about kabootarbazi and train their birds every day. To them, winning and losing is tied in to their personal prestige.
The sport isn't cheap—the trainers spend lakhs of rupees to train their pigeons for the competition. The pigeons are like their own children and they pamper them a lot. The best quality of almonds, pistachios and cashew nuts—along with the occasional chapatti slathered in ghee— are lovingly fed to the birds so that they gain in strength and bring glory to their masters.
Anklets and trinkets are custom-made by the trainers for the birds to make them look attractive. Every day the kabootarbaz take their pigeons out and make them fly for at least an hour.
The task of training these birds is not easy. It takes months for the pigeons to understand their trainer's voice and recognise the rooftop they need to land on. It takes about six months to bring the pigeons under control.
As seasons change, so do the needs and abilities of the pigeons. Monsoon is the most challenging period, say the trainers, for this is when the birds shed their feathers and go out of practice.
When the pigeons are flying, a stick attached to a big handkerchief of a particular colour (called "chibi") is used to control the direction of these stout-bodied birds in the air. The trainers also use different types of whistling techniques in order to communicate with their winged army.
Apart from Old Delhi, the sport is practiced in other parts of the city such as Shahdara and Karol Bagh, where every winter these birds form a quintessential part of the skyline.