A polo tournament (hosted by a maharaja no less) provides the perfect excuse to revisit Jodhpur, India’s Blue City
It wasn’t until i swung my mallet into the teeth of the horse under me that I began to appreciate the intricacies of polo. A few minutes earlier, bathed in Rajasthan’s morning light and standing on a bale of hay, I had been practicing swings under the tutelage of Malcolm Borwick, a lean, sinewy Englishman who’s a leading international polo pro. I’d effortlessly mastered the four basic polo strokes: offside forehand and backhand, nearside forehand and backhand. But then came the real test, replicating my textbook form atop an actual horse at the Jodhpur Polo Field.
In my defense, I didn’t swing the stick (as most players call the polo mallet) hard. But it completely missed the ball, completing its arc instead with a dull thunk on the horse’s jaw. Still, the filly took it well enough, letting out a brief “brhhhh” before continuing on as though nothing had happened; I suppose getting smacked in the face is an occupational hazard for polo ponies. “It’s important to rotate your body to get your stick into the plain and not hit the horse,” Borwick had instructed me earlier. I tried to rectify the swing over the next few attempts but my heart wasn’t in it, terrified that I’d knock out the animal’s chompers. Dismounting, I found myself wondering how polo players do it, racing down a field at full tilt, sticks raised like cavalrymen charging into war, and striking at the ball without sending every horse to the equine orthodontist?
I had flown here from Singapore to attend the Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup, a tournament held in the central Rajasthan city since 2009 and the culminating event of Jodhpur’s December polo calendar. The competition allies Royal Salute whisky, which sponsors polo tourneys throughout the world, and Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur, who is still revered as royalty even if he has no formal power. (He’s commonly called Bapji, or “father.”)
Peter Prentice, an irrepressibly jolly Englishman with ruddy cheeks and a booming voice who’s a director at Chivas Brothers, the makers of Royal Salute, gave me the back story on the competition. “A hundred years ago India was the global home of polo, yet after independence and up until the late 1980s it was solely a sport for the army. In the ’90s it was revived on a commercial level, sponsorship came in, and it attracted the old princely states like Kashmir, then Jaipur, then Jodhpur.”
It was Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, the maharaja’s son, who resuscitated interest in the sport here in the 1990s. “He put together a glamorous team. They started traveling the world; everyone wanted to see them play. He built Jodhpur’s polo ground in 1997, and put the city back on the global polo map,” Prentice said. But tragedy struck: Shivraj suffered a head injury during a match in Jaipur in 2005, sending him into a coma for two months and forcing him to give up the sport that defined him. And yet, four years later, when it came to partnering with Royal Salute, Shivraj was the biggest proponent.
I sat with his father in a dark-paneled room in the Umaid Bhawan, a resplendent Rajput-meets-Renaissance-meets–Art Deco palace that was once his family home. The maharaja still lives in one wing of the complex, but the bulk of the place is now run as part of the Taj hotel group, with dazzling grounds, a basement spa, and a sense of nobility that’s still palpable.
“Royal Salute is a great event, with great parties. It’s also the only 12-goal [meaning that the four players in a team must have a combined handicap of 12] tournament in Jodhpur,” Singh said. “Jaipur is a very bustling place, and Jaisalmer is consumed by tourism, but Jodhpur still retains a very strong character. We have stone construction, and the old city is intact. Jodhpuris are very proud of tradition.”