By Tulika Singh Roy
‘Arena Polo in Mussoorie? Are you joking?’ exclaims my cousin Manu Bahuguna, a retired Squadron Leader. If anyone knows, he should. After all I have seen him as a young cadet, in the once-upon-a-time days, captaining the National Defence Academy Polo Team. ‘It’s quicker! You play on an enclosed all-weather surface, or in an indoor arena,’ he adds by way of explanation.
On 9 December, 2022, President Droupadi Murmu will inaugurate the ‘Happy Valley Civil Services Arena Polo Cup’. And at the time of writing, arena polo is set to begin on the old Happy Valley Polo Ground, adding another feather to the hill station’s many-hued plume. More amazing is the fact that all this and more has been done by simply optimising existing facilities – taking them forward to the next level.
There is nothing like sports to offer opportunities of building inter-service camaraderie and there is nothing better to build team spirit than by participation in high endurance events. Bring the two together and it is bound to impart a resoluteness of character to young officer trainees.
Normally, the Sport of Kings or the King of Sports as polo has often been called, requires a ten-acre field, while arena polo is played on a 300 feet by 150 feet field that is enclosed by walls four feet high. A game has four chukkas, or periods, of seven and a half minutes, each, and a polo ball that looks somewhat like a crossbred mini-soccer ball but larger than the hard plastic ball used outdoors, and is played on a dirt surface where the ball bounces on an uneven surface and also off the arena wall.
‘What makes arena polo attractive is that it’s far more affordable than outdoor Polo. You do not have to pay the high annual maintenance cost of a grass field,’ Manu tells me. ‘Player investment is at a minimum, as two horses are needed to play a regulation arena polo match, which can be played year-round and attracts many players because progress in the sport is easier and much quicker.’
Our polo ground began when the Happy Valley Club was set up. It goes back in time to 1834 when John Mackinnon shifted his boarding school from Meerut to Mussoorie and founded the first English-medium school in the most popular hill station, as well as one of our most renowned families. Then one fine day he downed the shutters of the Mussoorie Seminary and turned to brewing. When he passed away, his two sons, Philip Walter and Vincent Arthur, who lived in Lyndale and Kandi Lodge, expanded into real estate. Very soon after, they owned the 500-acre Park Estate (once home to Sir George Everest), Happy Valley Estate, the heavily forested 550 acre Bhilaru Estate, and Snowdon’s 220 acre dense forest. They had an excellent forestry department that ensured whatever timber was removed was replaced by fresh saplings.
In 1904, they set out to promote the Happy Valley Club, after converting the space at the club into twelve tennis courts. At the mouth of Park Estate, they created a nine-hole golf course; levelling the ground to create a field that would be a little larger than a football field, where one round of the field is only two furlongs. Their story tells a tale of human fortitude.
When I tell Manu this, he shrugs his shoulders with: ‘The angrez probably played Bumble-Puppy Polo or today’s equivalent of a Mohalla cricket match. All the ingredients of a match were there but it isn’t the same thing!’
What changed everything was the Kangra Earthquake. It struck on 4 April, 1905, causing extensive damage. Its shocks were so severe that people were thrown to the ground and buildings collapsed almost instantly, taking twenty thousand lives. The crystal clear springs at Mackinnon’s Brewery at Mussoorie’s Bansi Estate (today’s Lyndale) increased their discharge by 20 to 30 percent and showed a gradual falling off only after 20 May, 1905.
In a tourism based state like Uttarakhand, arena polo will give a fillip to local tourism. By next March, Happy Valley will resound to the thunder of hooves. They herald something new that has been achieved by the simple expedient of tweaking existing facilities.