As legend has it, the idea of an elephant polo tournament in Nepal was born at a bar in St Moritz in 1981 as Jim Edwards of Tiger Tops was chatting with a polo enthusiast and whiskey magnate. As the night got merrier, the game began to take shape. It may have evaporated with the next morning's hangover had Jim a few weeks later not got a telegram (no email in those days) from his drinking buddy saying: "Have stick and balls. Get elephants ready."
And so began the first-ever invitational international elephant polo tournament at the Meghauli airfield outside the Royal Chitwan National Park. Last week, the 19th Annual World Elephant Polo Association Championships were held with ten teams taking part in two leagues. Tiger Tops Tuskers took away the WEPA 2000 trophy, winning the championship in a brilliant display of gamesmanship in the final match against the Swissair Jumbos. The Eldorado team from the USA won the Amateur Quaich Cup in a hotly contested battle with the Screwy Tuskers.
Elephant polo rules have changed over the years, but basically each game consists of two chukkers of ten minutes playing time each, with elongated two-metre polo sticks and regular polo balls. (Footballs were once used, but they exploded under the feet of elephants as they dribbled.) The field used to be regular polo field size, but the elephants took too long to get to the other side so they have since been reduced to 100 m x 60m. Each team now fields three elephants, each with a mahout and player wearing a colonial-style pith helmet. For those who have watched horse polo, it is like watching the game in slow motion. Someone described it as: "one of the world's fastest games on one of nature's slowest beasts." Or as Jim Edwards puts it: "Elephant polo is like playing golf from the back of a slow-moving Range Rover."
The game is not easy and slow as it looks. A team's performance depends on coordination between the elephants and their life-long drivers called mahouts, between various elephants in the same team, the accuracy of the passes and the ability of the forward elephants to outrun the opponents. For sake of fairness, the mounts and elephants are swapped at half-time between chukkers. Other important rules:
. Elephants are not allowed to squat or lie down in front of
. Elephants aren't allowed to pick up the ball with the trunk at any time. Opposing team gets a free hit if there is a foul.
. If players fall off elephants, play is stopped until they get back on.
. Pooper-scoopers are allowed onto the field to pick up elephant droppings during play.
. Elephants are allowed to be fed pick-me-ups (sugarcane balls packed with molasses and rock salt) at the end of the match. Mahouts can have a cold beer, but not elephants.
. Personal fouls include: hitting another player, elephant or referee with stick, or elephant standing on ball.
Before it was revived in Nepal, there are very few records to show where elephant polo actually began. Miniature Mughal paintings depict what look like women hitting balls with long sticks from the backs of elephants. The Maharajah of Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan, who was a pony polo aficionado, staged an experimental match 50 years ago, just as a joke, replacing the ponies with elephants.
The WEPA championships are invitational and invitations are sent out from the Association's headquarters at Tiger Tops in the Royal Chitwan National Park. Entrance fees are $5,000 per team, and entrants include Steven Swig, a rich lawyer from San Fransisco, Alf Erickson of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, another lawyer who also indulges in hot-air ballooning and collecting corkscrews. Erickson's team, called Screwy Tuskers, which includes some of his four daughters as players, this year finished second from the bottom. Says Erickson: "I don't take this game seriously. I take it obsessively."
The Nepali teams, which includes the National Parks team, generally do well since they have the most practice riding elephants in the park and in the Meghauli field. They have won the trophy a couple of times, last in 1998. This year they had a handicap of five and came fourth.
Ram Prit Yadav, captain of the National Parks team and former warden of the Chitwan Park says: "It's been 12 years since I began playing polo. At first we just didn't get it and lost for two or three years. But then we got the hang of it, and we've been winning . We've won because our elephants are swifter and we play well."