How are pigeons raced in India? - part 1

With approximately 3,000 pigeon flyers and a history of racing that goes as far back as the 13th century with the noble Kings racing between themselves, is pigeon racing in India one of the best kept secrets or just a forgotten country?

Whatever the answer may be, with the driving force of the Indian Racing Pigeon Association and its members, there is no question pigeon racing in India will be raised from the back streets to become a recognised contributor within the world of pigeon racing. The modern form of pigeon racing commenced in 1985 and after spending time with some of India’s most successful flyers, there is no hiding the fact they have a long way to go. However you walk away with the understanding that given the right opportunity and time, these passionate, professional flyers with considerable knowledge will someday compete on the world stage. Even now, if you placed some of these men in a modern loft in Europe, with good pigeons, they would be very competitive.

On landing at Chennai airport my wife Maggie, son Ivan and I was given a traditional Indian greeting by Ivan Philips and Mr. Vijayan. This comprised of a ceremonial gift of some lovely scarves. The word namaste is commonly used when one greets a person and upon parting.

Ivan Philips

Ivan Philips, president of the I.R.P.A, is one of the driving forces in lifting the sport out of the dark ages. He is from the southern seaside city of Chennai. Chennai contains more flyers than any other city in India and is the heart of pigeon racing, the Antwerp of India. The combine has 13 clubs plus further clubs in the outer districts, averaging 50 members per club and about 700 flyers racing from Chennai.

The Indian Racing Pigeon Association is the only racing pigeon organisation recognised by the Indian government, although not all clubs are with the association. It is hoped within the next two years the remaining clubs will come on board. India is the second most populated country behind China, with an estimated population of 1.2 billion. There are twenty eight states and seven union territories. In eight of these states you will find racing pigeon clubs, with Combines in three.
Ivan for many years worked abroad for the Indian Embassy as the Embassy Engineer, within this capacity he had the good fortune to visit and live in different nations around the world. Pigeon knowledge gained abroad gave him an insight into how racing is conducted in various countries. Ivan brings this experience to the I.R.P.A. He now resides with his family in his ancestral home. His grandfather built the first loft on the property70 years ago, then his father and now Ivan race from there.

Ivan Philips with his daughter in their loft

It’s only been 12 months since Ivan succeeded in lifting a fifteen year ban on importing pigeons. Even with the restriction of importing pigeons, some European birds did make it into various lofts. If a racing pigeon strayed onto a ship, sailors would trap them and once they arrived at the various Indian ports, sell them to pigeon flyers for a high price. Even today this practice by sailors still occasionally occurs. In one of the loft visits I handled a lovely NL cock that was purchased in this manner. Although the breeding was not known to the flyer, when handling the pigeon I can understand why he would have paid a considerable amount. Ivan organised visits to the homes of some leading flyers to view their pigeons and lofts.

Mr S Vanatha Kumar

Our first visit was to the home of Mr S Vanatha Kumar, he is the Secretary of the Star Pigeon Club and a successful business man. With his family they are one of the larger suppliers of cooking oil in India. Even though Mr. Vanatha Kumar is very busy with his business he still finds time to race pigeons. His birds are a combination of Sion, old Calcutta (Kolkata) line and Black Diamond originally from England. Most pigeons have a cross in their pedigree especially for racing. The loft is situated on the house roof top, four floors from the ground, a modest loft compared to the large lofts of Europe although superior for Indian standards. Designed to allow for extreme summer heat as it’s not uncommon for the temperature to reach over 40 degrees with high humidity; the conventional enclosed loft is not suitable.
If one was to be critical of Indian lofts, a suggestion of improvement to most lofts visited could be to add larger aviaries for the racers and breeders.

FLTR: Mr. Ivan Philips, Mr. S Vanatha Kumar, Mr. Gerald, Mr. Elagovan and Mr. S. Vijayan

Joining us for the day was Mr Elagovan, president of the Star Pigeon Club. Over a cold coke he explained how his club would be typical in membership with 22 members, each flyer can only send up to 20 pigeon to a race, comprising of 10 young and 10 old birds. Training starts about five weeks from the first race with most flyers sending their birds to organised club training. This training starts at 60 kilometres and goes out to around 110 kilometres. When racing commences only the first ten pigeons are awarded certificates with the first three receiving a trophy. No prize money can be won. There is only club racing up to 500 kilometres, after that they race combined national races. Club races start at 210 kilometres with only one race from each race point with increments of 100 kilometres.

A cold drink and lots of pigeon talk

Club centres are a rarity with basketing generally held at a club member’s home or private property. The above photo shows the outside of the local club room. Housed on the top is the race loft of Mr. Mohan.

Below FLTR: Mr. S. Vijayan (PRO, Indian Federation), Mr. Ivan Phillips (President IRPA), Mr. Elagovan
(President, Star Pigeon Club), Mr. Mohan (Member Star Pigeon Club), Mr. S Vanatha Kumar (Secretary, Star Pigeon Club),
Mr. Gerald (Member Star Pigeon Club), Rod & Maggie Simmons (Australia)

The above photo is taken inside the club room. A typical wooden race hamper that would carry fifteen birds to a race. You may notice there is no provision for food or water. Irrespective of the distance, once a pigeon is sent to a race it will not be fed or watered before the release. A point of disagreement by some members could lead to change in the future. Especially in the longer races when pigeons spend more than one night out.

When it comes to training or racing, one of India’s biggest hurdles for the average flyer, beyond the cost to keep and race their pigeons must be the traffic. It’s not a matter of collecting the birds and throwing them in the car or on the truck, whipping them 80 kilometres up the road and letting them go within an hour. It doesn’t happen that easy as the traffic can be horrific to say the least. There are not many free flowing roads and major highways are a rarity. At times it can take one hour to travel 20 kilometres.

I never thought any country could beat China when it comes to using the horn, but India would have to be the world record holder, it is even encouraged with almost all heavy automobiles displaying different signs suggesting to blow the horn when approaching. Indicators may be fitted to cars although they are seldom used. The general practise when navigating traffic is firstly sound the horn, secondly put the car nose in front whatever way possible, approaching from any direction, and then just go for it. Wherever you travel in India there’s a constant background noise of vehicles sounding their horn.

As the cow is sacred to most of the population, you will find it's not uncommon for them to be wondering aimlessly around the different cities. They can be found feeding on the side of the road or sitting in the middle of a busy intersection, going through a load of rubbish looking for food, even at times chained and domesticated.  

Mr Mohan

Our second loft visit was with Mr Mohan. His loft is situated above the club rooms; the design is more enclosed but still has plenty of airflow. You may notice no trapping system. This is because only a handful of flyers throughout India have clocks. In fact only four flyers have electronic clocks and basically no one uses older style manual clocks. I found this to be the most unusual aspect of racing in India. On race day, a nominated person waits with the flyer for the birds to return, on arrival when the pigeon enters the loft, the representative will record the time from their watch. When I questioned the accuracy of this method of clocking in a close race, it was explained that with most races the birds are spread out, therefore it wasn’t a big problem.

Mr. Mohan in front of his race loft