On most weekends between January and April, the charmingly-named 'pigeon fanciers' of Chennai can be found readying their prized fliers for a long journey. They pack the birds - up to 200 of them - into their cages, buy train tickets worth Rs.100 (appromimately $2) for each bird, organise various permits, and take them far enough and set them free to find their way home. Meanwhile, the fanciers catch the next train back home to wait for their birds and record their arrival time. But pigeon racing is far more complex than fairytales would have you believe. During long distance races, only one in ten pigeons will actually return, which makes the dedication of the fanciers all the more admirable.
Pigeon racing in India came in and faded out with the British rule, but continues to gather fans in a small pocket of Chennai. The city is home to six full time pigeon racing clubs, and boasts of over 2000 fanciers who breed, raise and race their own pigeons.
While pigeon racing seems to have a lot of scope for technology, the fanciers of Chennai haven’t let modernization get in the way of some good old fashioned sport. Their webpages look sweetly primitive, the scoring relies on the honour system, and the flights are timed by numbers handwritten on a ring on the birds’ foot. After the bird reaches home, the owner is must telephone the society to declare its arrival and check if it happens to be the winner.
And just like that, both pigeon racing and nostalgia continue to live on.
Image credit: Dindigul Racing Pigeon Association