Jumbos and Polo Players: 24th World Elephant Polo Championship

Features Issue 50 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: Courtesy: Sanu R. Bajracharya/Tiger Tops

Ringo Starr played it, Steven  Segal and Stephanie Powers have played it and the 13th Duke of Argyll has been leading the Chivas Regal team three years in a row. This unusual sport, known as ‘Elephant Polo’ is played every winter on a grass field in Meghauly, Chitwan. “How on earth does one play polo, sitting on a 10ft pachyderm?” one might ask. When an Englishman sits with a Scotsman for a drink, strange ideas take fruit.

It was at the St. Moritz Toboganning Club in Switzerland, that Englishman Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops, Chitwan met with a Scottish landowner and former Olympic toboganner named James Manclark in 1982.  Manclark recalls, “My wife was sitting next to us and she said, ‘He’s quite a nice man and he’s got elephants.’” Edwards remembers James turning to him and saying, “You got elephants, let’s play polo.” So Jim replied, “Buy me a drink and we can play.” James bought him a jugful. Back in Nepal, Edwards received a telegram from Manclark on the 1st of April that read: “Have long sticks. Get elephants ready. Arriving Indian Airlines 1st April. Regards, James”. The now legendary telegram had Jim in a quandary, ‘Was this crazy Scotsman serious, or was it an April fool’s joke.’ But taking no chances, he sent Chuck McDougal down to Meghauly to prepare the field and the elephants. Much to Jim’s surprise, James showed up with his wife Patricia and a bunch of other eager players. Elephant polo was born.

Since childhood, Jim had always dreamed of coming to the Himalayas. In 1962, he drove overland to Nepal, camped out a few days in Daman and fell in love with the country. This is where he has remained, running Tiger Tops, the pioneering venture in the Chitwan jungle. Over time, the company has grown to include trekking, rafting, travel and other agencies. The conglomerate is now known as Tiger Mountain.

The first polo game was chaotic as Jim recalls, “The field was so big, it took a whole day to score one goal, and the footballs that James thought we could use, were crushed by the elephants.” The pachyderms loved bursting the ball under their mammoth feet. Trial and error has over the years led to a decent set of rules that are even followed by the Thailand and Sri Lanka chapters. Yes, the elephant polo established in Nepal has spawned clones in other countries. Jim and James registered their World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) under their rules with Sports Council and if the Olympics are ever held in Nepal, they hope to include the sport.

When we reach Meghauly, where the games are to be held from the 28th of December, there is a festive air at the polo grounds. One corner of the airfield is fenced off for the games. Banners of various sponsors along with that of Tiger Mountain flutter in the breeze. A plane has just landed near by, bringing in more jet setting players flying in from Kathmandu. In half an hour, they have traveled from a bustling city to the serenity of the jungles of Chitwan. Once the roar of the departing plane has faded away, we are left in the peaceful company of lumbering elephants trained to play polo. Some of the riders are choosing drinks while the other riders are choosing mallets; those long bamboo sticks with a perpendicular cylindrical block at the end for hitting at the ball. The length of the mallet used depends on the height of the elephant one is to ride. The first day is devoted to practice. The players are swinging away trying to hit the 3-inch ball from as high as 10 feet above the ground. Some elephants however, are much shorter and supposedly faster. Many of the players are novices. Some have never ridden an elephant before, and are seen struggling with their long sticks. On the other hand, some like Manclark, are regular equine polo players and can hit a backhand with ease and send the ball flying towards goal from 30 yards out. Hence, the handicap system has been introduced to neutralize the advantage.

Most of the participants have not entered the jungle as yet. Guests alighting from the plane are taken straight to the polo fields, while the Tiger Tops staff takes the baggage to the lodge.  It is only after the day’s practice is over that players leave in small groups, and are driven through the forest towards the Jungle Lodge. After a fifteen-minute drive, we come across the Rapti river which we must cross in canoes. We are punted across, after which we hop onto Land Rovers (some are vintage) waiting on the other side. A pleasant ride through the forest and a drive through a shallow river and we are nearing the famous Tiger Tops. By the river we come across majestic peacocks, and deep in the forest, we surprise a herd of spotted deer that sprint across the road and look back with curious, innocent eyes. Half an hour’s drive from Meghauly, and we enter the parking area of the lodge. Some head for the rooms; we are shown our tents. We are assigned the last tent right next to the Edwards’ bungalow. The bungalow is magnificent and built entirely of locally available material such as thatch, wood and elephant grass. There’s a fire in the middle of our camp as winter mornings and evenings can be quite chilly in Chitwan. Tea is ready to be served any time we are in the camp. Dinner is served at the Golghar, an ingeniously designed round hall with no supporting pillars. The chimney at the center is glowing invitingly and there’s a crowd at the bar. The camaraderie among various teams is as warm as the fire that burns in the hearth. There’s an occasional shout of “Ireland!” from one corner. It’s the first time in elephant polo history that an all-Ireland team is participating and they are making their presence felt. Strong Irish accents float down towards us. 

The next morning everyone is off to Meghauly after breakfast. The players choose suitable mallets. Someone discovers she has been assigned the tallest elephant much to her distress, but she is to play defense. The elephant sits and leans towards one side to let the rider climb up, stepping on the curled up tail held in place by the Fanit. The games begin a little behind schedule, but it is well under way shortly after 10:30am. The umpire along with a few other people sits on the biggest pachyderm on the field. The first ten-minute chukker begins and the jumbos start racing towards the ball. Each game is 20 minutes long and the playing field is 70 yards by 120 yards. At times the game proceeds smoothly, but there are moments when nobody seems to be able to hit the ball and the elephants crowd around each other. The players twist and turn to see the ball hidden beneath the huge bellies of their mounts. To avoid overcrowding, one elephant on each side must remain within a certain marked area near his goal. These smart animals are taught not to kick the ball, nor are they allowed to pick it up with their trunks. However, when someone drops a mallet, they use their trunks to pick it up and hand it back to the owner or to the Fanit. There is a crowd of local people watching every day adding to the festive atmosphere. Hawkers sell their wares and folk musicians play their sarangi.

The game often lives up to our expectations and there is great excitement as the pack of elephants race towards goal with someone goading the ball forward and the opponents trying to send it the opposite way. Or there are instances when a star player like Manclark, Chandra Tamang or Peter Prentice strikes a goal from a distance. The commentator adds sparkle to the grandeur of the event with his witty comments and colorful remarks about the players on the field. There are moments of hilarity when in the heat of the game, someone let’s out a string of expletives. It is all taken in good humor and the slip is greeted with roars of laughter. The umpire stops the game briefly if there is too much of a muddle and little progress is being made. Fouls committed are closely watched and penalized according to WEPA Regulations. Secretary & Treasurer, Carolyn Syangbo has handed us the WEPA Rules and Regulations that run to eight pages. When scores are level and the commentator is counting down the final seconds, the suspense builds up. The excitement rises as one team heads towards goal in the dying seconds and we hear the commentator: “The National Parks star player, Chandra Tamang races toward goal, pushing the ball further up the field. The defender tries to block him but Chandra is through. He’s near the goal line. Is this going to be the winning goal? Yes it is, Chandra scores with 2 seconds to run on the clock! The National Parks are through to the next round.”

Carolyn Syangbo remarked, “The 2005 WEPA Championships was a hugely successful event with several new elephant polo teams who really added to the party. The elephants were in great form and we witnessed very impressive polo throughout the week. WEPA 2005 received an amazing amount of international press coverage, which is of course fantastic news for Nepal as well. The general feeling was that this year’s event was the best in a long time. I have been coordinating WEPA since 1994 and it is a great event to be part of as you get to meet lots of fun people, catch up with old friends and of course hang out at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge for 7 days. The game is a lot harder than it looks from the sidelines.” (Carolyn played for the International Tigresses.) When asked what it takes to be a good Elephant polo player, she replies, “Good hand and ball coordination, upper body strength and a smattering of Nepali does not go amiss.”

The highest scoring game of the tournament was Tiger Tops Tuskers v Chivas Regal Scotland – 9 v 10 on the first day. (Compare that with English Premier League scores.)  The most one-sided match was the 1st semi final of the Chivas Regal Olympic Quaich: Ireland Elephant Polo Team v Trunk & Disorderly - 7 v 0. (Perhaps a change of name is in order.) The exciting Final game for the Tiger Tops WEPA Trophy was a great contest between Chivas Regal Scotland and National Parks. Chivas Regal took the trophy with a– 7 v 6 victory.

Facts about
Elephant Polo

  •  The World Elephant Polo Championship is organized by Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge

  •  Under the auspices of the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA), the format is similar to horse polo and uses the same size ball and longer sticks

  •  In Nepal, four-elephant teams compete over two 10-minute chukkas on a pitch one-third the size of a horse polo pitch, about the size of a football pitch.

  •   Professional polo players are handicapped in the same way as horse polo whilst seasoned elephant polo players also carry a one goal handicap

  •  Other rules include:

  • Elephants are swapped at half time to even out any advantage

  • No elephants may lie down in front of the goalmouth

  • An elephant may not pick up the ball with its trunk during play  Stepping on the ball is forbidden

The WEPA report in brief
Second World Championship
for Chivas Regal Scotland

The 24th World Elephant Polo Championship, hosted by Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal, came to a close with Chivas Regal Scotland winning their second World Championship in a row as they clinched the Tiger Tops WEPA Trophy by 7 goals to 6 from their arch rivals the National Parks team of Nepal.

Final Seconds Crucial
In Tight Final

The scores were 4-4 at half time after a half where the Nepal National Parks team won the toss and took the faster elephants. However Chivas Regal Scotland leapt to an aggressive start by scoring the first goal after just 18 seconds seizing the initiative. Scores were level at the interval. In the second half, the National Parks quickly leveled the score and took another goal to make the scores 5-4. An intense battle ensued with Chivas Regal Scotland leveling the scores at 5-5 with just 2 minutes to run on the clock. With time slipping away Peter Prentice changed tactics and opted for a long shot from thirty yards scoring a spectacular and crucial goal to take the lead 6-5. Then Raj Kalaan sneaked in his first goal of the match to open up a crucial two-goal lead. With just 14 seconds left the National Parks star player, Chandra Tamang, scored to narrow the deficit to one with enough time to draw level.

However in the longest 14 seconds in elephant polo history, a jubilant Chivas Regal Scotland team eventually raised their sticks to the sky in celebration at the final whistle and another World Championship.

Ireland Clinch Amateur World Championship On Debut

For the first time in elephant polo history, an all-Ireland team entered and won the Chivas Regal WEPA Olympic Quaich, the amateur world title of the sport.Their victory came as they entered the final as underdogs against the experienced international entry, the International Tigresses & Dom’s Dragon team. Their spirits were roused before the final by a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ by the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas in a tribute to George Best.

All Nepal Challenge

The All Nepal Challenge, the finale to the championships was won by Tiger Tops beating the National Parks 2-0 in a fast and furious game played with passion and flair to the admiration of all players.

Entries for the 25th World Championship are now being invited. For further details: www.elephantpolo.com or from info@elephantpolo.com.