As a teenage schoolboy, Syeedna Ismail Hussain Banday cultivated pigeon keeping as a favorite pastime in the heartland of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Three decades later, although he has become a civil engineer and started his own construction company, his tireless love for pigeons lives on.
Banday, 44, is now a professional pigeon breeder and has his own flock of some 400 pigeons.
“These birds are an integral part of my life,” Banday said. “They made me a patient person and brought discipline into my life.”
The centuries-old tradition of pigeon breeding remains ingrained in the old quarters of Srinagar where flocks of pigeons on rooftops, in the courtyards of mosques and shrines, and around markets are commonplace.
Many of them are domesticated, bred by one of the thousands of fanciers there. Every week, on Friday and Sunday, different breeds of domestic and wild pigeons are sold in an open bazaar, known locally as the pigeon market.
Pigeon trainers release their birds into the air to mingle with other pigeons. The birds are often accompanied by stray animals when they return to their henhouses, generally installed in the attics of dwellings.
Unlike Western countries where homing pigeons predominate, trainers say high-flying pigeons are preferred in South Asia.
Like Banday, Imran Ahmed Bhat, 33, a taxi service provider, is an avid pigeon fancier, describing it as “passionate work”.
“I had a baby pigeon whose parents died. I was chewing cereal and feeding him,” he said.
Amid armed conflict, pigeon farming has proliferated, especially in downtown Srinagar, the heart of anti-Indian sentiment in the disputed Himalayan region divided between Pakistan and India and claimed by both.
Since 1989, an armed rebellion has raged in the Indian-held part, seeking to unite the territory under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
Indian police have repeatedly detained pigeons suspected of spying after the birds flew from the Pakistani side into Indian territory along the heavily guarded border.
Amid fierce fighting, lengthy security lockdowns, regular shutdowns and protests that often turned violent, many young men began breeding pigeons as a hobby and as a part-time business selling them.
But breeding pigeons is hard work. The owners brave curfews and harsh winters. They clean the chicken coops, transport the food for the birds to the roofs and look after the pigeons all year round, giving them vaccines and food supplements.
Banday said some of the pigeon varieties are very expensive. He owns two “Teddy” pigeons which he says cost around $2,700 for the pair.
“For an ordinary person, they are almost the same. But some breeds of pigeons are very sensitive and require meticulous care,” he said.