On the polo ground, two teams of four players on horseback rush in the direction of the wooden ball, jumping, flying, and whistling through the air. Often, only the coordinated movements of the skilful riders allow spectators to follow the course of the ball. For seven and a half minutes, the official time of the ‘chukker’, the eight men push their mounts to the highest levels of speed and ask them to react quickly: turn, stop, gallop.
It is only a friendly game, the players know each other very well as they all come from the Royal Jaipur Polo club and practice for the first tournament of the season, taking place tomorrow. During the hot months of summer and following rainy season, all activity ceases on Rajasthani polo grounds subjected to the vagaries of nature for almost half of the year. Players then travel the world and confront foreign friends in the United-Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, France or an Eden called Argentina. If Rajput warlords had a natural inclination for horse riding, trained from a very young age, today the active members of the club come from more diverse backgrounds and a variety of religions and castes.
The history of polo goes back to Persia, possibly as early as the 6th century BC, where it was first used as a training game for cavalry troops and progressively became the prerogative of the nobles. From there, the game spread to the West toward the Arabic world and to the East to China and Japan. Mughal emperors introduced the practice of polo in India in the 13th century AD, however, it was not until the 1850s that the British codified the rules and formed the first polo club, spreading the game worldwide.
In Jaipur, the polo tradition dates back to Raja Man Singh Ji, King of Amber, who in the 16th century had taken a keen interest in ‘chaugan’ while staying in Akbar’s court. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, three generations later, famous for shifting the capital from Amber to Jaipur, built a sophisticated polo field next to his palace, starting a long tradition of opening elaborate grounds in which to play the game. But it was Sawai Man Singh II, in the mid 20th century, who brought the Jaipur polo tradition to its climax as he became one of the most celebrated international players, reaching a level 9 handicap. He had received his polo training on the fields of Mayo College, the “Eton of the East”, as well as in the city of Jaipur. Man Singh II led the Royal Jaipur Polo team, then known as the ‘Jaipur Tigers’, through many victorious Indian and English tournaments throughout the 1930s, before reaching his top performance with the winning of the World Championship in Deauville in 1957. As described by his third wife Gayatri Devi in her memoirs A Princess Remembers: “Polo occupied in India the place of football in England. In the thirties, Jai was a very popular hero. Whenever he would drive to a match, the police had to open the way for his car trough the crowd. His admirers, by the thousands, would invade the polo ground to touch his feet as a sign of respect”.
Today, the family tradition has been taken over by Maharaj Narendra Singh, who married Man Singh II’s granddaughter the Princess Diya Kumari in 1997. In a red shirt and dark blue jeans, the moustached Narendra explains that he was not originally a keen rider, but decided to start his polo training in early 2000 to please the wishes of the princess’ father Bhawani Singh: “Polo is in our family and the only gap was that my father-in-law did not have a son. He used to tell me every day of course: Why don’t you start riding? Why don’t you play? I felt that it was a family tradition that we must continue”. “It is in our family, it is in our blood”. Now in his forties, the Maharaj is involved in the promotion of the Rajput traditional game through the Royal Jaipur Polo Foundation. According to him, the best qualities of a polo player are a good horse, a better horseman, and a strict discipline. For the past few decades, the ‘Jaipur Tigers’ have been lacking some of the ingredients of this magical recipe, but the Maharaj hopes to train the team back to its historical glory. In the hospitality business, he still plays four times a week during the season, starting in September and ending in March. Narendra explains his passion for polo with simplicity: “It’s the moment you sit on the horse and then you feel out of the world. It is such a speed that it gives you a lot of thrill. So the moment you sit on the horse, you forget everything.”