Golden Age

Excerpts from ‘The House of Marwar’ by Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh. Roli Books, 1994.

Miniature paintings in the Mehrangarh Museum reveal that the Rathores first played polo with the Mughals but it did not become a passion with them till much later, in the Nineteenth Century. It was in 1889, to be precise, that Sir Pratap, younger brother of the Maharaja and Prime Minister of Jodhpur State, invited Col.Stuart Beatson of the Bengal Lancers to help him raise the Jodhpur Lancers. And it was with the Englishman that polo came to Jodhpur in its modern form. The Rathores took to it like fish to water; here was a splendid substitute for war. The blood-rushing charges, the all-or-nothing riding-off, the frantic change of horses it was all there and only four years later the Jodhpur Team brought home its first trophy, The Rajputana Challenge Cup of 1893. That team, captained naturally by Sir Pratap himself, included Beatson, Harji (Thakur Hari Singh, the great horseman), and Thakur Dhonkal Singh, the last rated by many as one of the finest exponents of the sport ever.

In 1897, when Sir Pratap traveled to London for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, he took his polo team along, amongst the very first Indian teams to travel abroad, and, for that matter, foreign teams to invade England. They won many matches there, at Hurlingham and Ranelagh, and returned with their reputation enhanced; the finest Indian team during those years.

By the turn of the century Jodhpur had become an important polo center, and it would remain so till 1949; when the city boasted no less than six polo grounds; rivaling Calcutta, the oldest polo club in the world, by the sheer number of players. It was not surprising then that the 4th Hussars’ Regimental Team, determined to win the prestigious Inter-Regimental Cup of 1899, decided to spend a few days training in Jodhpur with Sir Pratap before the tournament. Playing at the No.1 position for the 4th Hussars was Lieut.Winston S.Churchill who wrote excitedly to his mother on 11th January, 1899 from his regimental headquarters in Bangalore, “ I am going next week to Madras to play polo the week after that Jodhpore where we all stay practicing for the Tournament with Sir Pertab Singh

But misfortune struck in Jodhpur. On the 9th of February Churchill wrote to his brother Jack (John Strange) from the Rose-Red House, nearly in tears, “I am staying with Sir Pertab Singh. All the rest of our team are here and everything smiled till last night; when I fell downstairs and sprained both my ankles and dislocated my right shoulder” Such was Sir Pratap’s and Dhonkal’s instruction, however, that the 4th Hussars did in fact go on to win the tournament, the injured young Winston scoring three goals of four.

Though Maharaja Sardar Singh (1895-1911) was himself a keen player, the sport in Jodhpur did suffer in the next two decades, what with Sir Pratap and the Lancers away for so many years.

On 1st December, 1921, however, when young Lord Mountbatten galloped on to the Chammi Ground for his first game he was amazed at the standard of play. A member of the Prince of Wales’ Staff he wrote in his diary, “Jodhpore, Thursday 1st Dec This day is a red letter one for me, as besides getting my first pig, I played in my first game of polo. In the last chukker, to my own intense surprise, I actually hit the ball three or four times! Anyway I loved it” He went on to record, “The average handicap of the other players must have worked out at something over 5 and there was certainly some of the best polo in India being played here this afternoon.”

He was quite right, for only two months later, in February, 1922, Jodhpur beat Patiala in Delhi to become champions of all India. It was a match often described as the finest ever. A crowd of over a hundred and fifty thousand people, which included the future King-Emperor, the Viceroy, Sir Pratap himself, and fifty Maharajas watched spellbound as the Jodhpur Team; Thakur Prithi Singh of Bera (Sir Pratap’s daughter’s son), Thakur Dalpat Singh of Rohet, Ram Singh and Rao Raja Hanut Singh (Sir Pratap’s third son); scored in the last minute of the last chukker to win. Jodhpur thus avenged in style their defeat years earlier at the hands of Patiala. The magnificent Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, let his horses loose in the crowded by-lanes of the capital and ordered his team to burn their sticks. They never entered the field again

That victory was only the beginning“Indian Prince With Four Wives And Seventy Ponies Storms London” screamed English headlines as Maharaja Umaid Singh (1918-1947) arrived in England early in the summer of 1925. The first claim was incorrect (the Maharaja was the first Marwar ruler to marry only once), but the ponies were certainly there; and mounted by an extremely talented quartet that included Rao Raja Hanut Singh, playing at a handicap of 9 and already rated as one of the finest in the game, Thakur Prithi Singh, Thakur Dalpat Singh, Ram Singh and an Englishman, Capt.A.H (Bill) Williams. Described in the Tatler as “Hot as Mustard”, the Jodhpur Team had a most wonderful season, beating every team there was to beat, including the U.S.Army; and winning the Hurlingham Champion Polo Cup and the Roehampton Open Polo Cup among many other lesser trophies

Only the Indian summer of 1933 was hotter than that of ’25 as Rao Raja Hanut returned to England with his younger brother, Rao Raja Abhay Singh, in the Jaipur Team that year. Polo was, in fact, Jodhpur’s gift to the Maharaja of Jaipur, the suave Sawai Maan Singh II, popularly known as the dashing Jai. Many years earlier, after ensuring Jai’s succession to the Gaddi of Jaipur, Sir Pratap had dispatched Dhonkal to Jaipur to teach him polo. The old man had done well but it was only after the young Maharaja’s double marriage in Jodhpur (Maan Singh II married Umaid Singh’s sister and niece many years before he married the beautiful Ayesha of Cooch Behar) that Jaipur polo really took off. In a Rajput home there is none more privileged than the son-in-law and Maan Singh II returned to Jaipur with, as he desired, not only sixty of the finest Jodhpur ponies and the Rathore Master-of-Horse, M.Amar Singh, but also the legendary brothers (Hanut and Abhay were married to daughters of the late Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Madho Singh II). The Jaipur Team, which even sported the Jodhpur Colors, green and gold, is a part of polo history. A cartoon in the Punch magazine said it all when it put them on an elephant, scattering frightened English teams about!

Talented Jodhpur players now found places in all the prominent teams of the late twenties and thirties; among them the royal teams of Bhopal, Kashmir, Kishengarh and Alwar. Indeed, it was a hallowed tradition; the all conquering Maharaja of Alwar’s quartet that took home the magnificent Delhi Durbar Cup in 1911 had two Jodhpur players, Rao Raja Amar Singh and Moti Lal. The famous Kishengarh team was powered by another Jodhpur player, Baney Singh. It was Jodhpur everywhere. So much so that a Nawab from Hyderabad was heard complaining one sunny afternoon in Delhi, “Polo players seem to spring up like bloody mushrooms in Jodhpur!”

Sadly it all ended with the outbreak of the Second World War The Jodhpur Lancers, however, stubbornly continued to play while waiting to be mechanized in Risalapur (now in Pakistan). “In fact,” recalled M.Prem Singh, grandson of Maharaja Takhat Singh’s son Bhopal Singh, “We won the Championship there beating well known teams like Probyn’s Horse.” M.Prem Singh (7), along with M.Jabbar Singh (8), also Takhat’s descendant, Hanut’s eldest son, Rao Raja Bijai Singh (7) and Thakur Kishen Singh Bhati (5) were the most accomplished of Jodhpur’s third generation polo players. Jabbar, at his prime an 8 goaler, the highest post Independence Indian player also remains the only Indian to play in the Argentine Open; and Bijai and Kishen were part of the 1957 Deauville Coupe d’Or winning Indian team with Hanut and the Maharaja of Jaipur; three Jodhpur players out of four Three other Jodhpur players have held aloft the World Cup; Prem, who, in fact, was the first to win it in 1953; Rao Raja Hari Singh, Hanut’s second son; and M.Jabbar in 1968. Hanut, of course, won it three years running, in ’55, ’56 and ’57. Of the seven Indians who have held aloft the Gold Cup, six hail from the desert kingdom

Rao Raja Hanut Singh continued to field his own team, Ratanada, with two of his sons, and, on one occasion, a grandson. Ratanada, named after a part of Jodhpur, won almost every tournament in India for many years. They were finally beaten in the sixties, with the veteran Hanut in his sixties too, by the Indian Army; the victorious quartet led by another Jodhpur player, Colonel Thakur Kishen Singh, who also happens to live in Ratanada