After the World Buddhist Summit in Lumbini this year, we headed for Chitwan thinking about the need for a French Buddhist temple. But these plans were shelved when we saw that teams from all over the world had gathered here to participate in the 23rd World Elephant Polo Championships last month.
Meeting the British ambassador, Keith Bloomfield, had us celebrating quite a different occasion. We decided to have a friendly match between France and Britain, each of us captaining our respective teams to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, a peace treaty signed by the two countries bringing an end to centuries of war. It has worked, there hasn't been a war since.
I had ridden elephants and camels before but had never played polo or any other sport while riding them. Initially stressed and hesitant, I quickly found myself enjoying it too much to worry about falling off. Elephant polo is played between two teams while the players ride on elephants with long mallets and a polo ball (see: 'The clash of ivories', #223).
When the idea of the sport was first established, it was decided that due to the size of the animals involved a football would be used instead of the standard polo ball. This plan worked fine until the elephants discovered that when they stepped on the ball, it burst with a delightful whoosh. And so the elephants proceeded to take great pleasure in doing this during matches, which resulted in the use of standard polo balls after all.
As we distributed teams, I discovered that Rupa Upadhaya, the Miss Photogenic and Talent from the Miss Nepal competition 2003, was also on my team. This turned out to be very smart move.
When the games began, it was a bit disconcerting to be leaning over the side of a large pachyderm holding on with your left hand as you tried to hit the ball, which looks miniscule on the ground, with a long mallet in your right as a another large pachyderm comes charging at you. Elephants, though they look like large ungainly animals, can be surprisingly swift during the course of the game.
It looked like they were having the time of their lives too because at one point, as we rushed towards the goal post, the elephants started trumpeting in excitement. The game can be pretty confusing and at certain times it just ended up being a jumble of limbs, trunks and mallets. To add to this confusion, the mahouts all wore the same jersey and after half time, the teams exchanged elephants. I believe I hit the ball in the wrong direction a number of times during the game but, hopefully, no one noticed.
As the game wore on, the score was 2-1 with the British side winning. The star goal scorer on our side was none other than Rupa Upadhaya herself, the beauty with elephant polo talent. I didn't feel so bad about losing either. It was a friendly match and helped celebrate the Entente Cordiale in a unique fashion this year. To add to the fun, my wife and Mrs Bloomfield had also joined in to try their hand at running commentary during the game. For a short while we even had commentary in French over the PA system.
As we left Chitwan, I wished I could have stayed to watch the finals, the most exciting match in the tournament where the mahouts play on their own elephants. Next year, I shall definitely return to watch the entire tournament and if they allow me to participate, we will welcome Rupa Upadhaya on our team anytime.
(Michel Jolivet is the Ambassador of France to Nepal.)