There is perhaps no better way to spend a winter afternoon in New Delhi than to watch a game of polo. During the polo season, on a Sunday, this is where the city’s elite assembles — royalty, diplomats, patrons, army officials, socialites and even fashionably dressed hounds. Polo is truly a showcase of India’s multi-faceted heritage and crowds gather to watch, socialise and participate vicariously in the exciting, invigorating, nerve-wracking, and often heart-wrenching, play.
This scene is evident at the Indian Open Polo championship, the last match of the season. This is a 20-goal tournament featuring an incredibly high level of polo that only a handful of tournaments worldwide can boast. International players participate and there are several well-known (and also impeccably tanned and handsome) faces, including Argentinian 10-goaler Ignacio Toccalino and South African five-goaler Chris Mackenzie.
The Indian Open is sponsored by Satinder Garcha, a Singapore-based entrepreneur who is a polo patron, as well as a polo player. Garcha grew up in India where he was introduced to the sport by his father, a colonel in the Indian Army and a keen polo player. For Garcha, it was love at first sight or, as he jokes, “love at first fall”. Over a drink at his apartment in South Delhi, Garcha tells me that polo has given him an incredible platform and introduced him to an invaluable network of individuals. “Most people consider golf to be a great networking sport but polo is a different ballgame altogether. As a patron, I can tell you that there is no real revenue stream that is generated from polo, so it is pure passion that sustains interest and it is precisely this that brings people together too.”
As I speak with Garcha, a famous quote inscribed on an ancient plaque in a 16th century polo field in modern-day Pakistan comes to my mind. “Let other people play at other things, the king of games is still the king of games.”
In India, polo has not only been the king of games but also the game of kings. The 2,500-year-old sport is rumoured to have begun in the mountain regions of India where polo became so popular that it was played by mountain tribes and Mogul emperors alike. For centuries past, polo has been synonymous with royalty and, over the years, many Indian princes such as Rao Raja Hanut Singh, Maharaj Prem Singh and Rao Abhay Singh have been world-famous polo players. It is in India that the British Army was introduced to polo, which it consequently popularised in England and across the world. In 1947, India gained independence from the British and many of India’s traditional patrons, the royal families, lost their estates and wealth. Polo was then largely sustained by the army. Most troops and polo teams of the erstwhile royal families such as the Patiala and Jodhpur Lancers were amalgamated into what was called the 61st cavalry. Although most of India’s mounted cavalries were eventually converted into armoured corps, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, requested that one horse cavalry be retained, to bridge the new and the old. Today, the 61st cavalry is the only mounted regiment remaining in the world.
Delhi, the national capital, and headquarters of the the 61st cavalry, is the focal point of polo in India. It is here, at the Jaipur polo grounds, a stone’s throw away from the prime minister’s residence amid the lush greenery of Lutyens' Delhi, that most matches are played. The Indian president too retains a private polo ground, maintained by the President's Bodyguard and, with the rise in popularity of polo, it is said that the ground will soon be made open to the public.
The polo season begins in Delhi with a host of matches and parties. It then travels to Jaipur, where matches are held at the ground of the Rambagh Palace, now a five-star hotel but where the Maharani or Queen of Jaipur, still maintains her private residence. In Jodhpur, the royalty of the region comes together to celebrate New Year's Eve over a fantastic polo tournament sponsored by Royal Salute. In Hyderabad, the state of the erstwhile Nizam, once the richest man in the world, a yearly tournament is held in his memory. Although the army is still India’s biggest patron, in recent years polo has seen a resurgence, with corporate sponsors and billionaire patrons such as steel-tycoon Naveen Jindal and real-estate mogul Subrata Roy Sahara fielding their own teams.
As in India, polo has seen a resurgence in several Asian countries because of burgeoning economies and a keen interest in luxury. Today, Thailand has an active, enticing polo scene and several entrepreneurs are investing in building polo infrastructure. Malaysia has always had a rich, royal polo tradition and is now popularising the sport. China, with its interest in all things ‘brand’ and luxury, has a burgeoning polo scene. In 2011, Asia’s first ever snow-polo tournament, modelled after the famous St Moritz event (although played on artificial snow) was held in Tianjin, China. Polo, in most of these countries, has corporate sponsors who see the sport as presenting them with an incredible brand opportunity.
Today, polo in India certainly has an international dimension. At the Indian Open polo championship, a DJ from Nikki Beach, St Tropez, spins house music in between chukkas, viewers sip champagne and enjoy canapés. Yet, there is a distinctly Indian flavour to the event. The sights and sounds of New Delhi, the sonorous call of the muezzin, the melodious chirping of the migratory red munia bird, mix with the sweet smell of horses, coming together to produce an memorable event.
Winston Churchill, a horse lover and polo player once said: “On the back of a horse, you will find paradise.” As I watch the immaculately dressed polo ponies prancing around the field, under the distinct fading winter sky where ochre pales to azure, I know that there are other ways too by which paradise can be found.
A polo match is divided into four or six chukkas depending on the level of the game. A 'chukka' (which means round in Hindi) is seven-and-a-half minutes of active play, although it is usually about double that with penalties, broken tack, injuries and so on. There is a three-minute interval between chukkas and a five-minute half-time. Horses are typically changed every chukka and, often, in the middle of a chukka.
There are four players in a team. Number 1 and 2 are traditionally attacking positions; 3 is midfield playmaker; and 4 is defence. Handicaps for each player range from -2 to 10 'goals', with 10 being considered the best. The handicap of a player is assessed several times during the season. The rating given to the player is not to be confused with how many times the player scores during the match.
The Polo Pony
The polo pony is a unique animal, not recognised as a breed by itself, but combining the best traits of many breeds. Most of the best ponies are bred in Argentina and are a mix of thoroughbred and local Criollo horses.
Traditionally, polo is played in white jodhpurs. The jodhpur is named after the Indian state of Jodhpur, known for its rich polo tradition. Jodhpurs are designed to be loosely fitted around the hips and tight from the knees to the ankles. Polo jodhpurs have inspired many fashion designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Ralph Lauren and Helmut Lang, who have included versions of these pants in their collections. In India, Jodhpur-city local designer Raghavendra Rathore is famous for his impeccably tailored jodhpurs.