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Saturday April 28, 2012

Jodhpur: Beautiful polo city

The blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India, is fast rising as one of the polo capitals of the world.

IT’S chilly and dusty but the weather doesn’t dampen the spirit of the polo players as they frenetically chase the little ball around.

It’s the final match, and pride is at stake.

With a flick of the long-handled mallets, the players attempt to drive the ball into the goal. Like any game, there are clashes between horses, and rivalry between players, but in a gentlemanly manner, these are resolved and the game continues.

A polo player in action during the finals of the 2011 Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup. A polo player in action during the finals of the 2011 Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup.

Manupal Godara from the Central Academy team fiercely strikes a 60-yard penalty, which sails over the post despite the strong breeze. Still, he isn’t satisfied and with the help of his mates, nets in a few more brilliant shots to see his team clinch the prestigious 2011 Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup.

The Maharaja of Jodhpur Gaj Singh II is in the audience, along with other dignitaries, and his heart may have pumped anxiously to see his son’s team, Yuvraj Knights, take a beating. But it’s hard to discern his expression behind the shades.

Set in the majestic foothills of Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, the field here comes alive with riders and their horses every December as visitors are treated to five days of world-class polo. The Indian Polo Association organises the polo season in Jodhpur for a month (the whole of December) each year. Teams and players come from all over the world, mostly from the upper echelons of society.

Polo in Jodhpur (also known as the Blue City, as the buildings take on a spectacular blue hue when viewed from the sky) dates back to 1889 when Sir Pratap, younger brother of the then Maharaja and Prime Minister of Jodhpur state, invited Col Stuart Beatson of the Bengal Lancers to help him start the Jodhpur Lancers.

A convoy of Rolls Royces driving out of Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. A convoy of Rolls Royces driving out of Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

The sport slowly flourished from there – the jodhpur riding breeches, worn by riders, originated from here.

Gaj Singh II has always taken a keen interest in equestrian sports and nurtured an ambition to re-establish Jodhpur as a premier centre of equestrian and polo. Despite being an ardent fan of the sport, the Maharaja, strangely enough, has never held a polo stick nor flicked a ball.

“I’ve never played before because circumstances were not good at the time. There were no horses! I only got involved after I returned from England and when my son began playing, I put together a team to promote the sport,” he says after the tournament.

In 1993, Gaj Singh II re-launched the Jodhpur team, which has since made its mark in the Indian polo scene. In March 2000, the new grass polo ground in Jodhpur, created and maintained by the Maharaja Gaj Singh Sports Foundation, hosted two Jodhpur teams, a Delhi team, a Kashmir team and a team from Kenya. It was the first serious polo competition in Jodhpur in nearly half a century, and it was a successful event.

“Jodhpur can now once again boast of a first-class grass polo ground that will undoubtedly produce the next generation of international Jodhpur players and play host to potential Indian tournaments where we can see the best in the country and world,” says the Maharaja during an interview with the Malaysian media in a private wing at the palace.

Since the Jodhpur team was launched, the Maharaja has hosted the polo tournament each year with honourable guest, Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll. For the past three years, Royal Salute, the world’s leading luxury Scotch whisky, has been the exclusive title sponsor of the Golden Jubilee Cup, which draws hundreds to the palace grounds.

The Maharaja’s son, Crown Prince Yuvraj Shivraj Singh started polo while in school in England where he played for Eton College and continued to play at university in Oxford. However, tragedy struck in 2005.

The handsome young heir apparent, who is in his early 30s and a player of great promise, fell off a horse during a polo game and couldn’t get up again. The entire country, including his parents, watched in horror as their only son took a tumble. Yuvraj was bedridden for years.

His rehabilitation has been slow but steady.

A fire eater
entertaining guests
at the New Year’s
eve parade. A fire eater entertaining guests at the New Year’s eve parade.

“He is fully conscious of what’s going on around him,” his devastated father says. “He needs somebody in the room with him but he doesn’t need support when walking. He is still on physiotherapy, memory exercises and speech therapy as he speaks very softly, but he even goes swimming some days.”

Yuvraj’s polo days may be over but for the love of his son, Gaj Singh II continues to champion the sport.

“The Maharaja is here to rejuvenate the sport despite his son’s accident. Jodphur is a spectacular place. It doesn’t get better than this. Nothing can top the experience of watching a match here. Most of the good players are foreigners but the Indian players are fast catching up,” says Campbell.

The Duke of Argyll confesses that he doesn’t play polo either.

“In life, you got to know what your limitations are! I can ride a horse but playing polo is not for me,” he says, laughing, before adding, “I can play elephant polo and was a double champion.”

The December polo tournament always culminates with the exclusive Royal Salute Golden Jubilee Ball, attended by players, patrons and the media, and the Maharaja’s famous New Year’s Eve procession and celebration at the breathtaking Mehrangarh Fort. It’s a colourful affair with tons of entertainment from fire-eating, ethnic dancing to jugglers and musicians, amidst good food and wine.

Gaj Singh II was enthroned at the fort after his father, Hanwant, was killed in a flying accident.

Perched on a cliff above Jodhpur, the fort is a museum run by a charitable trust and boasts some of India’s finest collections of silver-decorated elephant seats, ornate palanquins and lavishly embellished swords, firearms and cannons.

The Maharaja’s major thrust has also been in tourism. Besides the conversion of his own palaces into hotels, and the Mehrangarh Fort into an internationally acclaimed museum, Gaj Singh II has also provided dynamic leadership to the innovative Heritage Hotel movement, undoubtedly the future of tourism in Rajasthan.

The Maharaja has also served, until recently, as the chairman of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation.

“There was a time when Jodhpur was forgotten,” he says. “But now, I can say it’s much talked about. I want this city to be a clean, happening, place. Not many people know that the first international airport in Rajasthan was built in Jodhpur.”

Locals will tell you there is a reason Jodhpur is known as the Blue City. Apparently during feudal times, the Brahmins painted their houses blue but when the system was abolished, everyone else painted their houses blue to keep the mosquitoes away.

The Maharaja, who cannot stop promoting the beautiful city, exhorts tourists to come and discover for themselves.

“You’d need three days to cover the city. Out of those three days, you must spend one day at the palace. We have handicrafts, pottery, weaving ... so many things,” he says.

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