Anarkali, Chameli and Lakshmi have arrived at the polo ground in Jodhpur to attend the inaugural British Polo Day, an event held in December, which aims to become annual. Having disembarked from their cramped transportation, they enjoy a light breakfast at the edge of the field: 5kg of jaggery followed by 5kg of rotis each.
It’s been a long journey; the elephants travel in the cool of the night on lorries from Hathi Gaon, the government-sponsored elephant village on the outskirts of Jaipur, where they live and work, ferrying tourists around. Their owner, Rashid Khan, has brought all seven of his elephants to Jodhpur in a convoy of four lorries for a match of elephant polo, played as a precursor to the main polo tournament. All the elephants for the match came from Khan’s stable. The journey was cramped, says Khan, and the lorries had to make frequent stops on the way.
Elephant polo is a somewhat eccentric tradition, the modern form of which was invented by two Brits, James Manclark and A.V. Jim Edwards, over dinner in St Moritz, Switzerland, in 1982. Manclark writes on the World Elephant Polo Association (Wepa) website that the idea was cemented with a telegram he sent to Edwards at his lodge, Tiger Tops, in Nepal, which read: “Have long sticks. Get elephants ready.” Based on equine polo, the sport requires four (or in an emergency, three) elephants per side.
Photograph by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Across Jodhpur, in a hotel bar, a group of women from Dubai and Mumbai, visiting for the main polo event, have agreed to participate in the ladies elephant polo match the following day. They sip drinks and make small talk: “I lead a no-carb life,” confides one. “I lead a no-glute life,” returns her friend. They both nod, eyebrows raised as if acknowledging an ancient truth, of which the elephants, ramming trunkfuls of sugar cane into their already full mouths, are apparently unaware.
But the pachyderms understand all about the importance of style. Before each match, they are transformed: The chains are replaced with silver anklets, silk banners are draped from their tusks, fresh face paint applied and, berobed, they look as glamorous as their prospective riders, who have changed into pink and white polo shirts and are standing ready with 8ft-long sticks. The primping has been achieved by a team of mahouts (each elephant has three dedicated attendants), who minister to the animals’ every need. “I’ve been with Lakshmi for eight years,” says one mahout, as if talking about his girlfriend. “They need attention 24x7.”
Elephant polo is best described as ponderous. The mahouts are the only energetic aspect of the spectacle. As the players make futile efforts to hit the ball a few feet at a time from their lofty perches, the mahouts urge their mounts on with batons and a vigorous jerking of the hips, grabbing the mallets out of the players’ hands when the frustration becomes too much to bear.
Elephant Polo is off to a gigantic start with visitors thronging to catch a glimpse of Jodhpur’s four-legged star and their mahouts.
They admit it is not a game of great skill: “The thing with goals is that whoever is there at the right time can score,” says Lakshmi’s attendant. “It’s all estimation and luck.” There’s also the language barrier. If a player wants the elephant to change directions, she must submit her request via the mahout. Much is lost in translation.
The rule book gives some idea of the unpredictable nature of play: “No elephants may lie down in front of the goal-mouth. To do so will constitute a foul. An elephant may not pick up the ball with its trunk during play.” The match in Jodhpur had to be halted when the ball rolled into a pile of dung during play.
Wepa still has its headquarters in the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, where the world championships are played annually in November-December. Now, organized tournaments only exist in Nepal and Thailand, although tourists are allowed to try the sport in India, and rare events like the one in Jodhpur take place occasionally.
Nevertheless elephant polo seems to have more supporters than detractors and Khan’s nephew, a mahout, says the elephants enjoy it: “Sometimes we just let them free with a ball and they play alone.”