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Polo - The Game of Kings
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Polo - The Game of Kings
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Horse Polo Match Polo in India is a winter sport played from September to April. In much the same pattern as a century ago, it progresses from one polo centre to the next - Jaipur, Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Madras - in three-week or four-week tournaments interspersed.

In a country of a billion people, polo, with some 250 players in 23 clubs, is a gain of sand in the desert. It wasn't always so.

Don't imagine the officers and men of India's 61st Cavalry Regiment are embarrassed at being a military anachronism; quite to the contrary, they are hugely proud to serve the world's last surviving fully mounted cavalry unit.

The 61st is heir to a mode of warfare almost as old as war itself. Art has elevated the image of the warrior-horseman to mythic status. The tanks and machine guns of World War I brought him to an abrupt halt.

But for the spectacle of mounted troopers in full dress uniform, India maintains the 61st to provide pomp and pageantry on state occasions.

Based on the outskirts of Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan State, the Regiment looks to Rajputs and other warrior castes with ancient equestrian traditions to fill its ranks. Officers are expected to excel at show jumping, steeple chasing or polo.

Part of their brief is to promote India abroad, adding a dash of color. Haifa Day, celebrated on 23rd September, offers a glimpse of the Regiment's vanished past.

Elephant Polo in India Haifa Day is the anniversary of a cavalry charge in 1918, which saw several Indian cavalry units (since merged into the 61st), overrun the Turkish lines defending the Palestinian port of Haifa. Machine-guns, artillery pieces and some 1350 prisoners were taken. Casualties were suffered and inflicted. It was to be the Indian cavalry's last hurrah.

Haifa Day starts with the Colonel of the Regiment, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, reviewing a guard of honor.

Then follows the reading of a citation for those who fell in the Haifa charge, after which a Gymkhana is staged on the regiment's tree-lined parade ground, which doubles as a show-ring, race-track and polo ground. In the evening the gardens of the officers' mess become the venue of a formal, floodlit reception.

At the Gymkhana mess waiters move through the grandstand serving fresh lemonade. Families linked by serving or retired officers to the 61st, itself a "family", loom large in the Haifa Day guest-list, men in crisp uniforms of the Regiment, the women in saris.

Tent-pegging, pistol-shooting at full gallop, tugs-of-war and wrestling to the ground between by mounted teams, followed by a steeple-chase and game of polo, are greeted with applause. The British departed half a century ago, but Haifa Day conjures up their era. From E.M. Foster to Paul Scott, novelists of the British Raj would feel thoroughly at home.

Camel Polo in Rajasthan In the fallow years of Indian polo, after the British departed in 1974, the 61st was one of a handful of army units which saved the game from extinction.

Polo's decline in the second half of the 20th century was almost as swift as its ascent a century before. In the 1850's British tea-planters and army officers discovered Himalayan hill-tribes playing an ancient version of the game.

British cavalry regiments serving in India embraced it and, reflecting their own military caste of mind, gave us the game we know today. Among India's 19th century rulers, the British and the Indian princes, polo became a mania.

The mind boggles now at the men, money and horses allotted to subsidize polo to maintain cavalry regiments in fighting trim. British India alone had 80,000 cavalry mounts in the inter-war years.

The Indian Army and British-in-India defense force had 20 cavalry regiments apiece, each with between 750 and 1000 horses, while the larger princely states contributed another 40 regiments. Several maharajahs were among India's most gifted players.

Take the Maharajah of Jaipur, who ranked among India's finest players in the 1930s, and who was known throughout the polo world as "Jai". In 1933 he famously bankrolled a Jaipur polo team which sailed to England with 29 ponies and 59 grooms, and won every major tournament in the English season.

Polo The Sport of Maharajahs Swings and Strides, a monthly newsletter published by the Oberoi Hotel chain on equestrian and ball sports proclaimed: "Polo has arrived again, adding that where Indian polo had once looked to the army or princes for support, now it looked to commerce.

Mention of Jai recalls Jaipur City, capital of Rajasthan and seat of a Rajput clan, which expelled the former rulers in the 12th century. Its first seat of power was Amber Fort, which was periodically strengthened, and later transformed into a sumptuous palace.

Nearby Jaipur is a recent addition, commissioned in 1727 by the dynasty's greatest ruler, Sawai Jai Singh. The original Jaipur was a model of urban planning; a walled city with residential and commercial zones laid out in a quadrilateral grid.
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