Why do people play Elephant polo?
This is a question that's best answered in two parts. First, "Why?" Well, that's something mankind will probably never figure out. Second, "Do people play elephant polo?" The answer to that is, Of course. The Ninth Annual World Championships of Elephant Polo were held, in fact, at the Meghauli airstrip, adjacent to Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, last December, and the 1991 championships are taking place this week at the same site.
While some say that the sport originated in 18th-century Mongolia, and while it was definitely played by maharajas in India in the 1930s, the most recent version of elephant polo dates back only a decade. One evening in the bar of the St. Moritz Cresta Club in Switzerland, James Manclark, a former British bobsled champion and an international polo player, was participating in a grand tradition of clubs everywhere—the razzing of a new member. This particular new member was Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops Lodge. As Manclark remembers, "My wife pulled me over and said, 'You want to be nice to that man. He owns elephants.' I then proposed that we use them for polo. And the rest is history."
Manclark and Edwards thrashed out a draft of elephant-polo rules that very night, with Edwards still thinking that Manclark was kidding. Later, back in Nepal, Edwards received a telegram: ARRIVING KATHMANDU APRIL 1. HAVE LONG STICKS. GET ELEPHANTS READY.
"He was just crazy enough to be taken seriously," says Edwards. "So we staked out a field, rounded up some footballs [soccer balls] and let the games begin."
The soccer balls proved to be a mistake, because the elephants went out of their way to step on them. "They seemed to like the bang," says Edwards. But the matches were successful enough that the players formed the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) in 1982. Regulation polo balls were soon substituted, and the length of the field was reduced, from 300 by 200 yards to 150 by 80. There is an international board of overseers, headquartered at the Tiger Tops, and even a U.S. WEPA chapter, although no game of elephant polo has ever been played on American soil. The sport also has a fat book of rules, sponsors—including Pan Am and J&B Rare Scotch Whiskey—and a waiting list of world-class horse-polo players who wish to compete.
Lest hackles be raised, it should be pointed out that the World Wildlife Fund has declared that the sport poses no threat to the Indian elephants used in the games. Elephants, however, clip along at eight mph during play, and therefore the sport is not without danger for humans. The only restraint holding a player on an elephant's back is a rope that encircles the rider's waist and the elephant's midsection. Because play requires the rider to constantly lean horizontally and because the laws of gravitational pull are the same in Nepal as they are elsewhere in the world, the ropes continuously loosen throughout the course of a match. After a vigorous move, a player might suddenly find himself underneath his mount.
Each player is dependent upon his mahout, or elephant driver, who sits in front of the rider, just behind the elephant's ears. The mahout is responsible for steering the elephant. As a result of a controversy in the 1989 championship game-when somebody on one of the teams allegedly bribed mahouts and fixed the draw of elephants—each elephant-mahout combination must now switch teams at the half.
A match begins when the referee, sitting astride an elephant that's taller than the others, tosses the ball into a center circle. One player from each four-elephant team battles for control while his teammates hold back until the ball clears the circle. From then on it's largely a matter of pursuit, with the added stipulations that 1) each team must always keep one of its elephants in the offensive half of the field, 2) each team must have one goalie elephant, and 3) no rider can intentionally intimidate another rider's elephant.
The game consists of only two chukkers, of 10 minutes' length; in horse polo, there are usually between four and six chukkers, each seven minutes long. But swinging an eight-foot mallet (which is twice the length of its horse-polo counterpart) for 20 minutes is very fatiguing. The most powerful shots are of the spectacular, crowd-pleasing, 360-degree-swing variety.
Women players are allowed to use two hands to hold the mallet, and teams with a majority of women are awarded a one-goal advantage. Additional handicapping seeks to allow very inexperienced teams a chance to at least hold their own against superior talent. At last year's world championships the U.S. entry, the Infidels, sponsored by InnerAsia Expeditions of San Francisco, consisted of a "veteran" elephant-polo player (she had played in three previous tournaments), a former matador now living in California, a former high school tennis star, a hydroplane racer and an emergency-room doctor from Florida—plus one Nepali player chosen in a pretournament draft. After a mere 20 minutes of practice, the Infidels learned that their first match would be against one of the round-robin tournament's strongest teams, the Maharajahs, sponsored by the international Grindlays Bank. The sport's coinventor, Manclark, was a Maharajah, as was the commander of the 61st Indian Horse Cavalry, Colonel Rupi Brar.
The Infidels countered by recruiting a colonel of their own, Raj Kalaan of the Indian army, captain of last year's champion Oberoi Hotels team, as their coach. Kalaan then assigned elephants to players and positions: The largest animal was put in goal, and the fastest was put under Ramji Tharu, one of several Nepalis doled out to teams in a blind draw.
The Infidels began the match in front by one goal, courtesy of the handicapping system. They added a real goal on a shot by Tharu between the legs of the Grindlays Bank's goalie elephant and led 2-1 at halftime. When Grindlays tied the score midway through the second chukker, the Infidels' Scott Siegler, president of Columbia Pictures Television, assuming that the element of confusion could only work to his advantage, began calling out to Manclark, "Jim, pass it here!"
"That technique could not possibly have succeeded," said Manclark after the game. "No one ever calls me Jim." Final score: Grindlays 4, Infidels 2.
Other first-day results found J&B defeating the Pan Am Jumbos 5-3 and Oberoi Hotels beating the Fine Young Hannibals of London 12-3. In an upset the Tiger Tops Tuskers, unable to overcome their three-goal handicap, lost 4-2 to the Tops Tigresses, who were, as the nickname implies, all women—save for their Nepali teammate, Buddhi Kamal.
On the second day the favored Tuskers, still reeling from their defeat, squeezed out a 3-3 tie with Pan Am, and Grindlays trounced the Hannibals 12-1. The surprising Infidels, relying on defense and possession play, fought Oberoi to a 3-3 tie. The Tigresses beat J&B 3-1, which set them up for an unexpected run at the championship. The next day, in fact, a 3-3 tie with Pan Am put the women's team in the finals. In the game to determine the Tigresses' opponent, Grindlays beat Oberoi 7-2.
The World Championships of Elephant Polo attracts villagers from many miles around the Meghauli airstrip, some of whom walk days to attend. On the day of the Tigresses-Grindlays title match, thousands of Nepalis in festival finery ringed the field along with vendors, musicians, camera crews, assorted local celebrities and horse-polo players from throughout the world. When the teams donned colorful turbans and pith helmets, grabbed their giant mallets and rode their elephants onto the field, the crowd went wild, thrilled by what must surely be one of the most exotic spectacles in sport.
Elephant-polo spectators scream with every shot, but they scream loudest when the ball is hit toward the sidelines, because it is invariably pursued by charging elephants who often have difficulty stopping. Nonetheless, on this day people completely surrounded the large field, standing five and six deep.
Before the game even began, the proud Maharajahs trailed the women 2-0. Because elephant polo is not a high-scoring game, the two-goal advantage ensured that the outcome would be in question for quite a while. The Tigresses attempted to rely on defense and control. Grindlays designated one man, Govind Sandhu of India, as its scorer; his teammates continually tried to feed him the ball in front of the Tigress goal. In the end their methodical strategy, their greater experience and their inability to imagine living with defeat by a predominantly female side gave the Maharajahs a 5-4 victory.
At the awards ceremony, after he had lavishly praised all eight teams, Edwards, WEPA's vice-chairman, reflected on elephant polo's chances for recognition as an Olympic sport. "Well, of course, our efforts are just beginning," he said. "To achieve Olympic status, it must be played in several countries. They do play in India, and they could play in Thailand, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a couple of others. If we can get those countries to experience the sport, I'd say elephant polo has a bright future indeed."
Manclark, in private, was more realistic. "We did organize a match once with circus elephants in London," he said. "But they kept holding on to each other's tails and walking around in a circle."
Sandhu displays the reach that made him the big gun of the '90 event.
As mahouts jockey for position, the nervous crowd, wary of a run down the sideliness, is intent on the elephants.
James Polster's book, "A Guest in the Jungle," has been published by Mercury House.