The genesis of elephant polo in Chitwan

Pachyderm polo was Nepal’s star sporting event until it succumbed to the tide of public opinion in 2016

Thrice world elephant polo champion, Sangjay Choegyal battles for the ball with Sharlyn Stafford in Nepal 2009

“Get up, get up, get up!” Raj’s clipped staccato shout echoes across the polo field. My teenage son lay sprawled on the cropped green grass, his glossy chestnut skittering to a halt with the stirrups flying and reins dangling.

“Get up, Rinchen!” Col Raj Kalaan slapped his brown boots with a riding crop as he strode towards the winded boy struggling to his feet. “Pick up your polo stick, back onto the pony, grip with your knees and swing your arm.”

We were at the Kalaan farm on the outskirts of Delhi. Myna birds fidgeted in the trees, the polo lesson progresses, and I continue to chat with Sunny the family matriarch amidst her buzzing flowerbeds and tinkling teacups in the soporific Haryana afternoon. My boys learned their subtle stick and ball skills from Raj, and aspired to the dashing expertise of his sons Angad and Uday, professional players who together comprised half the Indian national polo team. But Sangjay and Rinchen were far from that league, more comfortable with elephants than horses.

Col Raj’s silver hair, neat moustache and military bearing with the sari-ed Sunny at his side were a familiar sight at both pony and elephant polo matches around the region, especially in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. But there was none of the taint of privilege or elitism about the Kalaans – Sunny’s mischievous smile was all embracing, and Raj shared his passion for the game with all comers, generous with his knowledge and patiently enduring the teasing imitations of his archetypical clipped army accent.

Col RKS (Raj) Kalaan 1940-2019

“Raj could always be counted on for some pitch-side advice whether you wanted it or not, and he was always right,” remembers master-hotelier Jason Friedman, one of many fans of the consummate coach. “On or off the pitch Raj was the supreme gentleman sportsman, trainer, friend, mentor and drinking buddy. He taught me the finer points of polo and made me a better player and person because of it.”

Raj was a key figure at the annual world elephant polo championships, played on a makeshift polo ground adjacent to Chitwan’s Meghauli airstrip. In adapting the game from the speed and agility of horses to the lumbering gait of elephants, the pitch was shrunk, polo sticks were lengthened and only two chukkas were played of ten minutes each, switching mounts at half time to neutralise the ‘elephant advantage’.

Metal spikes (ankus) were banned, and pith helmets were mandatory in an effort to mitigate accidents. At the annual pre-match meeting around a blazing fireplace with whisky tumbler in hand, Raj could be relied on to slow down proceedings pedantically to review the rules, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of elephants and riders.

Four elephants with a driver and player roped onto the gaddi (padded saddle) comprised each team, and the ball used was the same as regular polo -- the footballs first tried burst when stamped on. The field was festively lined with banners, team tents, commentary stands, pop-up shops, local musicians and hundreds of villagers gathered from far and wide to enjoy the spectacle.

Clad in white jodhpurs, riding boots and team shirts, the over-excited braying participants competed for barmy team names (Rusty Kukris, Pukka Chukkas, Tickle & the Ivories, Afghaniphants), clutching bloody marys between chukkas and comparing blisters. Distracted by off-pitch party pranks, the point of elephant polo is to take it seriously or not, in careful measure, and beware to those who underestimate the complexity of pachyderm skill and strategy.

The novel idea was first revived by Jim Edwards on the back of a bar mat in St Moritz with bobsleigh champion and Scottish landowner James Manclark, between Cresta toboggan runs, inspired by a cartoon of the invincible Jaipur polo team that still hangs in the Rambagh Palace Hotel.

“I have the elephants,” cabled Jim in 1982, “you show us how to play polo on them.” From the start my task was organising this batty idea, and making it a success. In time, we attracted scores of high-profile sponsors, flash players and media attention; extra tents accommodated the overflow, and Lodge staff came to dread the extra work and long hours.

My career on the gaddi was undistinguished (though I did make the Tigress’ team for a few years) but with their affinity for both mounts and mahouts, my sons went on to take all the glory. Sangjay was three times world champion and twice won a handsome silver frame for most valuable player. “Elephant polo’s answer to Lionel Messi!” I overheard one awed sponsor describe him.

National Parks were the team to beat, and Chitwan government elephants used to supplement Tiger Tops’ stable, all subject to the same strict rules to safeguard the highest standards of treatment and care. WWF experts certified our hatisar as a model of best practice ‘exemplary in Nepal and most responsible in South Asia’, with each animal employing three local keepers, mainly Tharus, Kumals and Botes.

Conceived to raise funds for elephant conservation and wildlife research, and to fill a quiet shoulder season, WEPA ran for 35 annual championships (challenging ‘Miss Nepal’ as the country’s longest running event) before succumbing to the tide of public opinion. Nepal’s last elephant polo championship was played in 2016.

In 1996 Col Raj Kalaan was instrumental in reintroducing polo to its historic roots in Mongolia, with Jim Edwards at Christopher and Enkhe Giercke’s riding camp high above the silver ribbon of the Orkhon River. In the harsh clear light of Mongolia, the azure skies and grassland horizons stretched limitless as sturdy native ponies galloped towards the goal posts in a bevy of waving sticks, excited shouting and flying dels, the evocative Mongol robes.

The descendants of Genghis Khan are more at home in the stirrups than on their feet, and took to polo with panache as flying hooves kicked up the summer dust. Released during the harsh winter months to fend for themselves, the Mongol horses are rounded up and retrained each year after the spring snowmelt.

Raj and Sunny arrived every July to embed the spirit of fair play into the herdsmen of the high steppes, and to mentor the Mongols on the finer points of polo: “No hooking above pony height!” Mongolia now fields a team to international tournaments. The Giercke pitch, conveniently across the dirt road from the felt-embroidered gers, orange painted woodwork and cashmere-cosseted comfort of the camp, is marked by a prehistoric stone pillar that casts a long afternoon shadow.

But not longer than the memory of Col RKS Kalaan, the epitome of polo, whose benign shadow lingers wherever polo is played throughout South Asia and beyond.

Lisa Choegyal


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