I landed in a very chilly Jaipur at 8pm, about the same time that I was expected at the City Palace for a party to celebrate the finals of the Vodfone Sirmur Cup, one of the most prestigious events in India’s polo calendar. Polo is a relatively exclusive sport anywhere in the world, but in India, it is even more so. Over the course of the evening in the courtyard of the City Palace, I probably met about 80% of the whose-who of the Indian polo circuit. I actively played the sport when I was younger and was surprised to see that the same names (the Godhara brothers, the Kalaan brothers, Samir Suhag, Lokendra Singh, etc) continue to dominate the scene, notwithstanding the 17 years that had gone by since I last attended such an event. The sport attracts more patronage from exclusive brand names like Cartier and Hublot and there are a growing number of private ‘patrons’ sponsoring teams – as a result, and egged on by movies like Aisha, where the hero is the quintessential high society poloplaying investment banker, more people are now aware of the game. This translates to higher attendance, compared with when I was younger when the bleachers would be almost empty at the most high profile matches in Chennai – even the free high tea after the match was never enough incentive for people to show up to polo ground at St. Thomas Mount. In Jaipur however, for this weekend, there was no shortage of spectators – well-heeled locals, the royal families from the region, and scores ofpolo enthusiasts from all around the country showed up to watch and cheer the match. They were all dressed up in their finest clothes and it was immediately obvious that the grandstand of Jaipur Polo Club that weekend was the place to see and be seen.
One of the reasons that the sport suffers from low spectator following is the perception that the rules are complicated. For the uninitiated, it is very irritating to hear the umpires whistle regularly go off and have the game stopped for a foul when you cannot understand the reason. The basic rules are very simple – 4 players to a side trying to hit the ball into the opponents goal – much like hockey, but on a horse. The game is divided into 7.5min ‘chukkers’ – in India matches normally comprise 4 chukkers, in England they are 6 chukkers and in Argentina, they are 8 chukkers long. The main rule, of which the spectator should be aware is the ‘line of the ball’. When the ball is in play, the actual and projected line on which it travels is sacred – a player on the line of the ball has a ‘right of way’ that cannot be crossed unless far away enough to not pose a risk of getting in the players way. Therefore, the most common way to get the ball away from a player on its line is to ride them off the line by lining up your horse alongside the opponent and literally ‘bumping’ them off the line. ‘Bumping’ a rider in this manner at high speed requires courage from a rider but success equally depends on the strength and ability of your horse. Speed also matters – if your horse is fast enough, the opponent may never be able to catch up with you to bump you off the line! The game is obviously very tiring for horses and typically, one cannot use the same horse for more than a single chukker.
Jaipur is also the home base for the 61st Cavalry, which I am told is the last mounted regiment in the armed forces anywhere in the world. For the equestrian enthusiast, their campus is as close to heaven as it gets. Hundreds of horses, 3 full sizedpolo fields and the most awesome terrain across hundred of acres that will challenge the strongest horses and the most experienced riders. For much of my childhood, I had only aspired to be an officer in the 61st Cavalry and spend the majority of my life on these grounds. I had obviously given up on that ambition a long time ago but for nostalgic reasons, riding here for several hours over the weekend was a very special experience for me. It is largely because of the continued existence of this regiment that that equestrian sports have stayed alive in India – it is only recently that the private sector in India has become wealthy enough to engage in the sport seriously. It is only a matter of time before the private sector takes over the sport but for now, the armed forces remain the only entity with budgets large enough to take this expensive sport very seriously.
The final match on Sunday was probably the fastest polo I had seen first hand. The underdog team Equisport did a great job of getting ahead of the Cavalry Carysil team briefly before Cavalry took back the lead in the final chukker to win the match.
Polo may be an elitist sport, but in Jaipur, even the common man fully understands the rules and comes to watch from the sidelines. On more than one occasion over the run up to he finals, they stormed the ground protesting what they considered a bad umpiring decision against Vishal Singh, one of India’s top players and a local hero in this city. When the bugle was blown to mark the end of the match, the spectators ran in to get close to the players and cheer them at the prize distribution ceremony.
Some of us made our way back the 61st Cavalry’s campus to celebrate their victory and before I knew it, it was time to head back to their airport and get my flight back home. This may have been my first polo weekend in Jaipur, but it certainly wont be my last.
Originally published in Frappe