December 01 2012
December is the high point of the polo season in Jodhpur, Rajasthan and the Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup, which takes place between December 26 and December 30, is the premier fixture. The five-day tournament, comprising eight teams and numerous international players, is accompanied by a hectic round of balls and receptions, and is one of the most glamorous social occasions in India’s winter calendar.
Jodhpur could hardly be a more appropriate setting for the festivities. The mesmerising city, overlooked by the Mehrangarh Fort, has been a polo-playing venue since the late 19th century, lending its name to the close-fitting britches favoured by everyone from cavalry officers and serious equestrians to Madonna and Ralph Lauren. Sir Pratap Singh, a son of the 23rd Maharaja, was a distinguished polo player who brought his own team over to England in 1897. Admittedly, the present Maharaja, the moustachioed Gaj Singh, doesn’t play himself but cuts a dashing figure in the stands wearing a white Stetson and elegant neckerchief. The sponsorship of Royal Salute, a luxury whisky made in Scotland by Chivas Brothers and sold mainly in Asia and South America, has enabled Singh to reinvigorate Jodhpur’s polo-playing traditions and propel the Cup into the first division of exotic sporting events.
The city’s royal residence is in the Umaid Bhawan Palace, a vast sandstone structure built between the 1920s and the 1940s and visible for miles around. From a distance it looks like a cross between a cathedral and a huge art-deco railway station, but on closer inspection you discover that one part is now a luxury hotel, while another houses a museum detailing the Maharaja’s family history, along with a fascinating collection of vintage cars beloved by Indian princes in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, during the polo festival, the Maharaja personally leads a convoy of classic cars – Rolls-Royces, Packards – from the palace to the playing grounds and back.
Umaid Bhawan is also the setting for the Royal Salute Golden Jubilee Ball, while on New Year’s Eve there is a big procession and reception at the Mehrangarh Fort, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display. The fort is enthralling in its own right, containing one room with a ceiling of gold filigree and another with a beautiful collection of palanquins and elephant howdahs.
Parties and polo aside, there is another, different but equally fascinating, aspect to Jodhpur. In the old marketplace, be prepared for a dazzling array of sights, scents and colours, with dozens of stalls selling spices, jewellery, shawls and fabrics; haggling is essential. Other than the auto-rickshaw drivers, you are more likely to see an elephant or a camel lumbering along the narrow streets than a car. And Indian maharajas have long been patrons of the Turf. Maharaja Pratap Singh Gaekwad of Baroda, for example, was a polo enthusiast with a house in Monte Carlo and a stud in Kildare. He won the 2,000 Guineas in 1948 with My Babu and, for a time, was as powerful an owner as the Aga Khan. Fittingly, my long-range tip for 2013 is Liber Nauticus, daughter of the present Aga Khan’s stallion, Azamour, to win next summer’s Oaks at Epsom at 20-1 with Victor Chandler.