Four times a day, the buses and cars that tear pell-mell down Surendra Nath Banerjee Road in central Kolkata stop and give way to the two dozen-odd thoroughbreds and their riders as they walk past leisurely. The Kolkata Mounted Police (KMP), a nearly 170-year-old force that has been patrolling the Maidan—the vast expanse of green in the middle of the city—remains a signature sight. It still makes the job of the city’s police force easier.

Horsing around: (clockwise from top) The KMP is a common sight in central Kolkata; horses exercise at the SN Banerjee Road stables; Vikram Singh Rathore (left), a second-generation mountie. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

“Our exact date of inception is shrouded in mystery, though official documents from 1840 mention the existence of a force of two sowars (riders) under a dafadar (head officer) whose job it was to inform the harbour master whenever any ship was sighted on the Hooghly," says Inspector Chandi Charan Panda, who is in charge of the KMP.

“The true predecessor of today’s KMP was formed in 1842, when mounted policemen were asked to patrol the Maidan," says Inspector Arvind Kumar Mishra, the additional in-charge of the KMP. “In those days, as today, the mounted police kept the Maidan free of the thieves, thugs and criminals who used to frequent it," he adds.

The Maidan is where most of the city’s sporting action takes place. Indian football’s big names—East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting—are all headquartered here and have their grounds here. Then there’s the 100,000-seater Eden Gardens cricket stadium and some 70-odd “tents"—makeshift pavilions that house sundry other big and small sporting clubs.

“Crowd control during all matches on the Maidan, patrolling to ensure law and order, and ceremonial duties are all handled by the men and horses of the Kolkata Mounted Police," says Mishra, who joined the force in 1988 as a sergeant.

The mounties, as they are affectionately called, also participate in equestrian sports such as polo, showjumping, tent-pegging and dressage.

Rana Pratap Rai, the seniormost sowar with the force, gives us an idea of what crowd control, the KMP’s primary duty, entails. Thirty years ago, as a still wet-behind-the-ears horseman from Chhapra in Bihar, he had his first taste of the city’s craze for football. Deputed to control crowds during a match at the Mohammedan Sporting ground, Rai and his horse waded into the crowd to control the serpentine queues that stretched from the ticket window and threatened to spill over on to adjoining Red Road.

“We galloped up and down to keep the queues in single file, prevent scuffles and brawls, all the while keeping an eye out for troublemakers who would try to slash our horses with blades or burn them with lighted cigarettes," says Rai, due to retire from his beloved force next year. “My forearms hurt for days afterwards," he recounts as he prepares to mount Antigraph, his current steed.

Mishra, too, recalls the back-breaking work that the mounties put in. “Those days, we used to be in the saddle from 11am to 7pm during the soccer season," says Mishra, who keeps finding his way back to the KMP whenever he is posted out of it. “I have spent 15 of my 20 years in service with the mounted branch because I love the horses and I love this place," he says, sitting on an improvised saddle-chair in his small office off the bustling SN Banerjee Road.

Throughout the 19th century, the KMP (then Calcutta Mounted Police) performed various duties—patrolling and maintaining law and order, along with ceremonial processions, honour guards, etc. “In those days, when many of the roads were not paved and were lit by lamps, we also did night patrolling," says Mishra.

In 1911, two momentous events occurred. Delhi became the capital of British India and Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield, defeating several European teams, giving football a permanent place at the Maidan. Since then, the mounted police has become a permanent fixture at all sporting activities in the Maidan area, including the international matches at Eden Gardens. Mishra says two horsemen are as effective as a hundred constables when it comes to crowd control during big matches.

The KMP has sanction for 98 horses—it currently has 67. It recently received three horses from the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and has requested the state government to authorize the purchase of 10 more. These horses are stabled either at the KMP headquarters on SN Banerjee Road or the Bodyguard Lines in Alipore. “The BG Lines stable is both the nursery and old-age home for our horses as the new ones are trained here and the old ones live their retired life there," says Mishra, pointing to a young foal undergoing the “lunging" exercise—it is made to run in a wide circle while the trainer stands at the centre.

Mishra, who hails from Ballia district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which has its own Wild West culture and love for horses, does the rounds of the stables at the crack of dawn, hollering whenever he finds any slack on the part of the syces or sowars.

The day begins at 4.30am for the horses, when they are roused and given a light snack before being prepared for their morning duties—either patrolling or working out at the paddock or rolling (walking with the syces) within the KMP compound. Later in the morning, after they have been scrubbed down, they get another meal. Then it’s time for a siesta in the cool confines of the Victorian stables fitted with fans. The routine is repeated in the evening, the only difference being that more horses are on patrol. “That’s when most of the football matches are played," says Mishra.

Typically the horses operate from dawn to dusk, so the day and night cricket matches, especially the Indian Premier League, are particularly tough on them.

Despite some decline in Maidan football over the past few years, the KMP remains important to the scheme of things. “Football’s craze may have diluted a bit but it is sure to look up in a few years," says Mishra, stroking his mount Pritilata, a thoroughbred bayroon mare who, along with Charulata, a similar horse, are his favourites. “Charulata is camera-shy and doesn’t like the flash," says Mishra, smiling indulgently.