Why India is Home to the Last Remaining Pigeon Carrier Service

In Odisha, the practice is a testament to South Asia’s reverence for birdlife.

pigeon article feature
Afghan pigeon fancier Abas Aqa feeds his birds as some take flight on the rooftop of his residence(Aref Karimi/AFP via Getty Images)

Sadaf Ahsan


July 5, 2023


8 min

As the story goes — though it has many variations, depending on who tells it — one day, Prince Salim was taking a stroll through a garden with his friend Mehr. He had just been to the Meena Bazaar, an elaborate week of shopping in Delhi open to only women, select royalty, and nobles. There, he had purchased two rare and invaluable kabootar, or pigeons.

When he saw a beautiful flower in the garden, he asked Mehr to hold the pigeons while he plucked it. But when he turned back, she had only one pigeon, not two. “Your Highness, a pigeon has flown away,” she said. When he asked how, she stretched out her other hand, loosened her grip, and let the other bird go. “Like this,” she responded with a giggle. The prince was in shock. Just like that, he had lost his prized pigeons. “Salim, don’t you think these birds are more beautiful flying free in the sky?” Mehr asked. Charmed, he agreed. Later, the two would fall in love and marry, and he would become Mughal Emperor Jahangir, and she Nur Jahan. 

Pigeons hardly seem like romantic animals. But in South Asia, a love for the bird dates centuries back. Some believe the legend above is why you’ll often see pigeons crowding around sacred monuments in the region, and why folks will leave pots of water nearby for them to drink. Hindi film songs serve as odes to pigeons, and India has pigeon gaming, while Pakistan has pigeon racing. The traditions are old, and largely dying out. But not in Odisha, which continues to run a pigeon carrier service — the only one left in the world.

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