Early morning in the Nilgiri hills in southern India is cool and misty. It is not difficult to see why “Ooty”, a hill station 180 miles from Bangalore, became one of the favoured refuges from the sapping heat of the plains during the British Raj.
Its temperate appeal endures today among Indians. So, too, does one of its more colourful traditions. In its 166th season, the Ootacamund Hunt Club is thriving under the management of the Indian military college in the nearby cantonment of Wellington. Hunting was officially banned in India in the 1970s during Indira Gandhi’s time as prime minister but the Ooty has continued to operate as a drag hunt. It is the only English-style chase still in existence east of the Suez Canal.
Today is the fifth and final meet of the season and by invitation of the hunt masters, I have joined the riders and their 43 mounts. At dawn, I pull on an improvised hunting outfit. My borrowed black coat, part of a Wallis suit, approximates quite well, though it doesn’t match my blue hat and brown boots. But I do have a proper silk stock with a gold pin and a hairnet, which my sister sent from London.
Before we ride out, a tray laden with smoking incense, red kumkum powder and rupee notes is circulated. Every hunt is preceded by a pooja, or worshipful offering, made at a miniature Ganesha temple to pray for the safety of all participants. The horses, turned out in matching saddle cloths and fluffy red brow bands, each sport a red tikka mark between the eyes.
The master, Colonel Vikas Madhok, gives a pep talk. He warns of the obstacles we might encounter such as low-hanging branches. He also reminds us of the rules of the drag hunt, which include invocations not to go out of line and not to ride over the greens of the Ooty golf course. Finally, with a flourish of his hip flask, he says: “We will take the customary swig of brandy.”
By 7am, I am cantering on Natwar, my loaned chestnut gelding, following the lead riders as they weave through a silvery eucalyptus forest in search of prey: not foxes, but imaginary jackals. The taste of brandy is in my mouth. A hunting horn toots persistently behind me.
The rider in front waves his arm towards a large, tan foxhound with its nose to the ground. “Look! See, there’s Shepherd, he’s leading the pack!” cries Lieutenant Colonel Ashok Rathor, the dashing honorary secretary of the hunt. (I know this old English foxhound. Seven years earlier, I had a hand in bringing him from the Hurwurth Hunt in North Yorkshire to southern India to add new blood to a dissipating canine bloodline.)
The male riders out in front are all senior-ranking army, navy and air force officers. They are wearing knee-length red hunting coats, made by the “Britishers” and introduced by Captain Godfrey Heseltine in 1907. Rathor assures me his is at least 50 years old. Following behind us in smart, blue blazers, divided into two batches according to their riding ability, are the officers of the military college, their wives and children. The youngest is 11 years old.
The Ooty is the only survivor of the 18 hunts in India listed in Baily’s Hunting Directory before the second world war. The transfer of its management in the 1950s out of private hands to the military college secured its survival.
Among its few civilian supporters is Peter Craig-Jones, a descendant of one of India’s oldest surviving colonial tea and coffee planting families. Craig-Jones’s forebears first landed in the 1700s during the time of the East India Company and “stayed on” after India’s independence in 1947, even taking Indian passports. He has hunted with the Ooty pack since he was a teenager in the late 1960s, although he has been away running an IT-related consultancy in Bangalore for the past 12 years, with little time for riding in the hills. He now hopes to return.
At the hunt breakfast, Craig-Jones is immaculately turned out in tweed jacket and tie. But he did not ride with us – he was informed at the last minute that neither he nor his guest had received the required military intelligence clearance in time. He remembers thrilling chases through open country before what he calls “dreadful” eucalyptus was planted on the Ooty Downs. He does not remember a kill. “I’ve never been on a hunt ever where they’ve caught a jackal!” he laughs.
This failure was blamed on the inbreeding of the hounds, even as far back as the 1950s when his father was a keen follower. In those days, there was still an English master of the hunt and they were sticklers for correct hunt dress and etiquette. “Now it has changed into something very different,” he says.
During the hunt there is no hint of any scent, no cry of any hound, but it is an enjoyable and fairly bracing two-and-a-half-hour ride. We cross small rivers, jump fallen logs in pine forests, and – the highlight for all – enjoy an exhilarating gallop around lake Kamraj Sagar. As we careen to a halt, a silver haired Major General with a pink flush in his cheeks confides: “First time I’m riding after 30 years ... too much football, muscles have developed in the wrong places.”
We end back on the golf course, pausing before doing a final “gallop-past” the gathered foot followers. A riderless horse charging into view provides a moment of drama. Fortunately, his unseated rider suffered only a twisted ankle. Then, back at the kennels the band of the Madras Regiment greets us with great fanfare. We line up, clutching our glasses, toast the Ooty Hunt, then down our drinks before the ceremonial lowering of the red and green hunt flag.
We retire to the Ooty Club, resplendent with its trophy heads, English hunting prints and a portrait of Winston Churchill. I opt for the mixed bar, rather than the one reserved for “gentlemen”. There are some traditions of the Raj that I can live without.
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