Elephant Polo: A giant’s play

Known as the “sport of kings”, polo also becomes the sport of giants when players ride elephants instead of horses. The month of November/December is the time when the country’s major event of elephant polo is organized, with thousands of tourists hammering in from all around the globe. First held in 1982, the five-day championship event invites the polo chapters from India, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand and Nepal to Tiger Tops, a conservation resort in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

Elephant polo, played primarily in countries like India, Nepal and Thailand, follows similar rules as the traditional sport, though the pitch (or field) is a bit smaller, players wield longer mallets made from cane or bamboo and two people ride the elephant: the player and the mahout who steers the animal. Each team has four players and four elephants who work to score across the opposing team’s goal line. The tournament is played on a grass airstrip at the northern edge of Chitwan National Park, with players and guests staying at the nearby Jungle Lodge.

A few of the rules have also been modified from the equine version in consideration of the larger mounts. The animals must not lie down in front of the goal or pick up the polo ball with their trunks, or the opposing team gets a free hit. Men may only use their right hand to swing the mallet, while women may use both hands. If at any time, an umpire believes a dangerous switch or play has been made, the other team is allowed to take a free hit.

Approximately 16 elephants participate in the World Elephant Polo Championships. These elephants are trained and maintained by skilled grooms (mahouts), who often will stay with an elephant for many years. The organizers keep the elephants’ health and safety in mind at all times. Not only are there strict rules against any harsh treatment of the animals, but also elephants may not play more than two 20-minute games a day and each animal is rewarded with sugar cane or rice balls full of molasses and rock salt after each match.

The tournament features some of the best players from around the world including participants from Scotland, England, Thailand, Hong Kong, India and more. After the day’s play all the players and guests have dinner in a traditional round house and revel together. If you wish to witness this extravaganza and be a part of it, make sure you are in Chitwan during late November and early December.

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