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THE MOST SPORTING COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
IN the ignorant West we think of India as a land of giant palms shooting from matted undergrowth of languorous scents and steaming heat. The India you run through between Bombay and Jodhpur is mere prairie — coarse grass, scanty trees here and there, thin goats and cattle, sand, and shivering villagers. As for steaming heat — w-w-w-wr! — bloodless fingers trembled helplessly round buttons as I tried to dress in the railway carriage. Tropical India! W-w-w-w-wr!
The kindness of the superintendent of the railway had postponed the agony from three till seven in the morning by uncoupling my carriage at Jodhpur. I blessed his name, and the easy, unbuttoned habits of native States, as I stepped out on to the empty, spotless platform and found the sun just rising. Half-a-dozen bare-legged natives cowered under the well-built offices — shaking violently, shrunken, miserable, half-dead, waiting for the sun to kindle them back to life. For luckier me came a carriage with three footmen, and a cart drawn by a couple of towering camels — their noses thrust heavenwards in vain, indignant protest — to take the baggage. We rolled forth into the independent Rajput State of Jodhpur.
Its inhabitants seemed different from the flabby creatures I had left in Bombay. They were taller, held themselves straight, and looked before them; most grew strong, black, bushy beards, self-respectingly oiled, parted in the middle, and brushed stiffly upward and towards the ears. Many of them were on horseback, sitting upright, with a firm and easy seat, controlling spirited ponies with a touch on a single snaffle. There seemed, indeed, an extraordinary number of horses out that morning about Jodhpur. Sandy rides bordered the well-metalled road on both sides, and almost a continuous string of horses stood tied up to the regularly planted trees. As I reached my host's gate, a man holding a chestnut Arab stood up on the wall and salaamed.
An hour later I was privileged to meet the Prime Minister. He wore a pith topi — which means sunhelmet — a padded and quilted box-coat, and beneath it strange breeches of drab cloth, of which the continuations came down, without gaiters, over his boots. His conversation was of pig-sticking and the mouthing of young horses. Presently, riding out, we came to the cupolas of the Maharajah's suburban palace. A dozen saddle-horses stood outside it, and a string of sheeted thoroughbreds was being taken out to exercise. The living part of the palace is neither large nor luxurious as maharajahs' dwellings go; but the stables are vast beyond the dreams of Tattersall. Every more than usually palatial building in the environs of Jodhpur turns out to be a stable. The palace establishment is a great quadrangle of loose boxes about the size Of Russell Square. Saddles and sets of carriage harness, new and old, frayed and glorious, Wilkinson and Ram Singh, line the walls in battalions. His Highness was unhappily not out this morning; a week before, schooling a two-year-old on the racecourse, he had been carried into a post and had hurt his arm. It was still in a sling, and the Maharajah — a handsome but languid lad of eighteen or so — was deeply depressed. "I am feeling a bit chippy this morning," he explained: carriage exercise was no use to him; he wanted to be on horseback or with his dogs and gun.
We trotted on with the Prime Minister for the further inspection of Jodhpur. Beyond the palace — his Excellency larking over a couple of fences on the way — we came to a spacious polo-ground laid down with faultlessly rolled grit: to this is attributed the fact that they had never had anybody killed at this game. Past the polo-ground was a racecourse; on it more horses were being exercised; and when you raised your eyes to the sandy horizon, behold! it was thick with horses on every side — young horses and old, Walers and Arabs and country-breds, racers and pig-stickers and polo-ponies, hackneys and even a pair of Shetlands, greys, chestnuts, and blacks, — the whole country was a whirl of horses wherever the eye could see and as far as the eye could reach.
The Jodhpur riding-breeches — breeches and gaiters all in one piece, as full as you like above the knee, fitting tight below it, without a single button or strap — have been taken up, as I am told, by a London artist, and are on the way to be world-famous. The Jodhpur standing martingale is as yet less known: it is thought that leather chafes a horse in the hot weather, so a long band of soft cloth is used instead. The State polo team has beaten most in India, and no cavalry regiment thinks itself quite ready for a big tournament till it has put in a fortnight's practice at Jodhpur. It is many years now since the Jodhpur-owned Selwood, the Prime Minister up — "I riding niny-seven, English jockey-boy riding sixy stone, I beating him" — won the Calcutta Derby. The present chief, himself the most beautiful horseman among all the hard-riding princes of India, entered into his inheritance a year or so ago. He instantly started a racing stable in Calcutta, a stable at Newmarket, stud-farm in Australia, and, Of course, everything conceivable at Jodhpur. As for the Jodhpur pig-sticking, is it not famous over the length and breadth of India? The Jodhpur Imperial Service Lancers are as smart a tent-pegging corps as exists in the world. A member of the Royal Family, returning from the Jubilee of '87, brought with him, as the best of our contributions to human well-being, a hansom cab, which he personally drove across country. Briefly, Jodhpur spells horse. The small-talk of a hunting county is varied and cosmopolitan beside that of Jodhpur. Even in Newmarket there are some half-a-dozen people who have no visible connection with racing. Altogether Jodhpur can probably claim without arrogance to be the most sporting country in the whole world.
The territory of the State of Marwar, whereof it is the capital, lies in the western part of Rajputana. Fringing the great Indian desert, it is itself half-desert, with a scanty rainfall and a sandy soil. An ideal rain first breaks up the hard ground in early June, then falls lightly till September, when, the sort of millet on which the Marwaris live being husbanded, another heavy fall is desirable to fill the tanks for the cold weather. But ideal rains are rare, and Marwar is a relatively sterile country — level and soft-going for horses, though perhaps a little heavy for training racers — but none too rich even in grass, and niggardly of food to men.
So that a generation ago the natural disadvantages of the country having been sedulously supplemented by mismanagement, the State was bankrupt, the people were crushed by taxation, the Government was a mass of corrupt inepitude, a Government only in name. Then came a man, an English resident, who knew how to work on the pride of the Rajput, the son of fifty generations of kings: he made men of them and a State of Marwar. To this day they quote his admonitions with a simple adoration, half-childish, half-manly. "This sahib very fine rider, good for polo-play, good for pig-shtickin'. This sahib telling me, you gentleman hai, do gentleman things, work like gentleman."
They did work like gentlemen. They did not build a museum and a school of art, as did the neighbouring State, where a Bengali babu is Prime Minister; but they put the taxation and law courts on a footing of rough-and-ready justice, they ventilated the jail, and especially made a branch line to connect with the Rajputana railway. At the urgent instance of the superintendent of their railway, they made a great reservoir to hold the summer rain and an aqueduct to bring it to the city. In dry seasons the people used to have to migrate elsewhere; now they get sufficiency, if not abundance, of water throughout the worst of years. They have instituted a little Decauville railway to carry the sewage out of the city; they have made roads all round their city and planted trees — you may see the young ones, each in a cup of carefully moistened mud and fenced with a wall of mimosa thorn — where before was nothing but desert.
Conceiving the British to be the only true sportsmen in the world besides themselves, the men of Marwar are loyal beyond suspicion to their suzerain, They look on their Resident not as a spy or a taskmaster, but as a friend. "You thinking, sahib, being more war soon?" they will ask him anxiously, for they ask no better than to have a chance of showing what their cavalry can do for the Empress.
But with all the modern improvements and the British sympathy, Marwar is not over-governed. Its political life is simple like itself. State affairs are not neglected, but the cavalry and the polo, the racing and the pig-sticking, remain the serious business of life. The horse, who abases the base, is to these simple aristocrats the salt that keeps their life sweet and clean. He keeps them in a happy mean between the half-baked civilisation of the babu and the besotted sensuality of the old Asiatic rulers. He solves for them the great problem of the ruling races of India — how to employ themselves innocuously now that in India there is no more war.
How simple and manly they remain you may easily gather from half an hour with such of them as have been to England. Petted in London drawing-rooms, pampered at Ascot, admitted to easy intercourse with Royalty, they remain unaffected, modest, sincere, now exploding in boyish laughter, now gravely respectful to the sahib as to a father. The babu, you see, feeling himself inferior at heart, is jerkily familiar; the Jodhpur Rajput, knowing himself your equal, can afford to call you Sahib and salaam. The intimacy of princes cannot raise him; the friendship of the plainest cannot lower him. He is a Rathore Rajput; he can never be more, and he can never be less.