India's Elite Horsing Around With Polo

Associated Press Writer

When the heat of summer fades and the winter haze settles over the Indian plains, the rich return to the playing fields of New Delhi and the sport of the maharajahs returns to this ancient city.

It's polo season in India, and the well-bred, man and horse alike, are facing off on grassy fields -- and graying the line between sport and spectacle.

There are galloping horses imported from Argentina and grooms in bright maroon turbans to care for them. There are wealthy players shouting in Hindi, Spanish and the most refined Oxford English. There are flocks of model-thin women wandering the stands in tight jeans and sparkling diamonds.

And at just about every major match, there's Col. K. S. Garcha, onetime star player, polo patron and technology millionaire, making sure that all goes well.

Polo "is a disease, and the only cure is poverty or death," said Garcha, an endlessly buoyant retired soldier who has become the main cheerleader for India's rejuvenated polo world.

Invented in Asia some 2,000 years ago and refined by generations of colonial English cavalrymen, Indian polo had all but disappeared by the 1980s. The sport that once dominated colonial society had become the domain of a few cavalry units, and a sideshow to the fading days of India's horse-mad maharajahs, the royals who lost most of their power in the late 1940s, and their public allowances in 1971.

But polo has found new patrons in the magnates who have emerged since India cast aside socialism and opened up its economy in the early 1990s. Now, the stables of the maharajahs are sustained with fortunes made in fast food, computers and steel.

With all that money has come something else: stands filled with the rich, the aspiring-to-be-rich and the pretending-to-be-rich. They are a show unto themselves and a living history of India's moneyed elite, from maharajahs who survive by selling off generations worth of collected treasures to the hyper-coiffed wives of industrial barons.

"The chiffon and pearl brigade, we call it," said Asmita Agarwal, a polo and fashion writer for the Hindustan Times. "Women in chiffon saris dripping with huge diamonds. They're all royalty, or at least they're trying to be royalty."

India's true royals -- the maharajahs, nawabs and nizams who once ruled the nearly 300 princely states of colonial India -- have, for the most part, become little more than symbols of a bygone time. Taxes, gambling and the expensive toys and hobbies they were famous for (one maharajah had 150,000 guests for the "wedding" of two of his dogs) have taken their toll on once-enormous fortunes.

Today, a few are in politics and another handful are successful businessmen, but many have slipped into upper-class obscurity. They may live well, in servant-filled mansions with Mercedes in front, but the grandchildren of absolute rulers are left with little but dwindling bank accounts and the prestige of largely powerless titles.

So in many ways modern Indian polo is about joining the new royalty.

"Polo is like a passport," Garcha said during an interview at his stables, in the city of Jaipur, southwest of New Delhi. "No matter where you go anywhere in the world, there will be people to invite you over and take care of you."

The polo world reaches from Palm Beach to the Argentine Pampas, but it is a tiny community, almost completely limited to the kind of people who can buy stables of polo ponies, fly them around the world and take weeks off at a time for tournaments.

They also tend to be resolute Anglophiles. In a polo crowd, the talk is often of country houses, Eton and insider gossip about the British royal family.

Across India, the greatest national heroes are the men who led the fight against British colonialism.

But you'll hear little such talk at a polo match. Instead, polo players, particularly some older ones, can get lost in reveries to colonial days -- when, few seem to remember, Indians were third-class citizens in their own land, and every benefit of British rule came at a cost of billions of dollars worth of Indian resources.

"If Britain had not ruled India, we'd perhaps be a backward African tribe," said Col. D. N. Kanwarpal, 67, a retired cavalry officer whose blue blazer, he points out, is buttoned with colonial emblems that date back over a century. "The British gave us a springboard -- roads, rails, buildings." And, not to be forgotten: "They left such a beautiful language."

Just listening to polo matches can be an Indian reflection of Britain's elite. At most Delhi tournaments, Timmy Singh, a long-ago polo player and yet another retired soldier, announces the action over crackling loudspeakers in an accent that sounds straight out of Cambridge.

"Oh, lovely shot," he'll say when he gets really excited, or, "Kindly get on with it" when a timeout goes on too long.

But while the polo world likes to play at being gentlemen, today's game is as much business as pleasure.

Corporate sponsorship is increasing -- Pizza Hut sponsored a major New Delhi tournament earlier this year -- but the main precondition for players remains very basic:

"You have to be rich," said Agarwal, the journalist.

Despite India's economic changes, there are very few of those in this nation of 1.02 billion people, a quarter of whom still go to bed hungry every night.

But there are enough for polo.

A 21st-century magnate may be a mediocre player, but he can ride with the best by hiring professionals -- "assassins," polo's old guard calls them -- mostly from England or Argentina, to round out his four-man team.

That, say the purists, is the price of a new world.

"It's a good thing that's happening, otherwise it would have mostly died out," said Gayatri Devi, the 85-year-old Rajmata -- or queen mother -- of the former royal state of Jaipur. "After all, before, the patrons of polo were the maharajahs."

Jaipur is India's polo capital, a dusty city watched over by small, castle-topped mountains where a good tournament can attract thousands of spectators. And, compared to Delhi and most of the other Indian cities, it's a place where serious polo is still more important than the glitz surrounding it.

So, occasionally, the Rajmata gets out to see a match. But she misses the days when men like her late husband, one of the greatest players in Indian history, dominated the field.

"It was a team game before," Devi said, sitting amid fading black-and-white photos in the office of her Jaipur mansion, once just the pool house of a palace that is now one of the country's most expensive hotels.

"Today, you have the patrons, you have the hired assassins and things like that," she said. "Some of the players in India are very good to watch, but ... when you see a really first-class team playing like a team, it's splendid."

But even today, money and celebrity aren't everything. Garcha, who learned to play in the Indian cavalry and set out to make a fortune after he retired simply to afford to keep playing, says the society circus around polo is just the means to an end.

"The media, the awareness, the glamour" have helped invigorate the sport, he said. "As long as the game gets a little shot in the arm."

But it can be easy, amid that circus, to fail to heed the matches.

Well played, polo is a startlingly beautiful game, a 28-minute battle of men and horses.

Not that many people in the stands would notice.

"People only go to be seen and for their pictures to be snapped," Agarwal said. "And if they understand it, I doubt it."

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