Bolly Ho!

Baying hounds, pink coats, misty downs... the traditional British hunt is alive and well, in southern India - even if they haven't caught a fox in 170 years. James Deavin reports
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The Independent Online

The hounds can't pick up the scent of the jackal on the morning I join the hunt. The riders, some in pink jackets and turbans, arrive at dawn to find their horses waiting for them with the syces (grooms), most of whom have camped overnight in frosty conditions. Their fires are still smouldering as the final preparations are made for the off, in a landscape more like the New Forest in Hampshire than anything you would imagine finding in southern India.

The hounds can't pick up the scent of the jackal on the morning I join the hunt. The riders, some in pink jackets and turbans, arrive at dawn to find their horses waiting for them with the syces (grooms), most of whom have camped overnight in frosty conditions. Their fires are still smouldering as the final preparations are made for the off, in a landscape more like the New Forest in Hampshire than anything you would imagine finding in southern India.

Hunt sabs, Parliament acts, civil disobedience (threatened), and mass marches in London: the stuff of hunting with hounds in Britain today. Five thousand miles, and a world away, a hunt continues unaffected by the storm raging here. It is even trying to foster closer connections to the British hunts in which its origins lie.

The Ooty Hunt Club was founded in 1835 by British residents of Ootacamund, a Raj-era hill station in the state of Tamil Nadu. Now its membership is 95 per cent Indian, but it still meets once a month to charge through the Nilgiri Hills. There being no foxes in India, jackals are the quarry of choice. The Nilgiris rise to 2,500m, which accounts for the frosty mornings and rolling downlands, complete with gorse bushes and winding country lanes through places called Windy Cap and Glen Morgan.

Enthusiasm for the sport is undiminished. Codes introduced by the Victorians are rigorously enforced, including the pink coats and proper titles for the riders. Before the hunt gallops off, the bearers serve tea and the Master of Hounds, Colonel Balbir Singh, carries out an inspection. Fines for those incorrectly attired are enthusiastically paid after the hunt - in beer. I am pounced upon with a certain glee when I accidentally call the hounds "dogs", and a two-bottle fine is levied on me. Those who are unfortunately unseated during the ride also pay the fine.

One former Ootacamund resident, Deborah Gill, who lived there in the early 1960s, says: "I remember the hunt being full of pomp and * circumstance and quintessentially British. It is strange to think of it continuing so long after independence." But while one might imagine that most Indians would want to discard memories of their former rulers, tradition appears to die hard in Tamil Nadu.

The hunt is now run by the Indian army, whose staff college is in nearby Wellington. Colonel Singh believes "the hunt encourages the same values which are important to army officers - leadership, initiative, stamina and teamwork". The hunt's president, Lieutenant General Brar, who is also the college commandant, believes that the relevance of the hunt is that "getting up at four in the morning and riding into the mists of the downs is very exciting". It almost seems a collective amnesia has set in about the hunt's origins - the time when the ancestors of those riding today would have themselves been the bearers, syces and boys, calling their rulers "master" or "sahib".

The hunt's home has traditionally been the Ooty Club, an old colonial institution founded in 1841, and most famous for being the place where the rules of snooker were drawn up in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. When I visit later that day, I am struck by the portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth which still adorns the wall of the bridge room, and by the lunch menu: fish, mashed potatoes and buttered vegetables, followed by apple crumble. The secretary, Mr Kilpati, who clearly sees himself in the mould of previous British owners, stringently enforces the old rules. Liveried bearers roam around, jacket and tie are obligatory at dinner, and non-members don't make it past the gate. Ever. "People come from all over the world to see the Ooty Club, but I don't let any of them in - this is a members-only club," says Kilpati. I also discover why, on our morning's outing, the hounds failed to pick up a scent on Windy Cap. All the jackals, or at least their heads, are on the walls of the Ooty Club.

Despite this conservatism, the hunt has ambitious plans for its future. There are four teenagers on our outing, all keen huntsmen. The president also has a plan to host "package tours" for British hunters to visit the Nilgiri hills, and ride with the hounds. Members are aware of the controversy over fox-hunting in the UK, but no one will be drawn into the debate. Could they be afraid of the controversy coming to them? It doesn't seem very likely - it turns out the hunt has not managed to kill a single jackal since 1976.

There is existing support for the Ooty hunt in the UK. Last year the Hurworth hunt, in North Yorkshire, donated a four-year-old foxhound called Shepherd to help improve the local bloodline. Without this kind of aid, it seems unlikely it could survive in isolation. There are two British riders on the hunt too - a major who was doing a course at the staff college, and his wife. Major and Mrs Roberts had never hunted before their arrival at Ooty, though - in fact they have never ridden at all, living as they do in central London. This kind of modern Englishman is very different to the kind Mr Kilpati models himself on - a distortion who perhaps only ever really existed in Anglo-India.

After the hunt returns from its gallop, the members hand over the horses to the care of the syces, and are transported to their breakfast, for fines to be paid and stories of daring to be recounted. This no longer takes place at the Ooty Club but at the new Holiday Inn in town, where eggs and bacon are served alongside traditional Indian fare of parathas with chutney. There, I photograph some of the club's young bucks - generally ambitious officers at the staff college. Their poses are reminiscent of black-and-white photographs of British Army officers during the Raj - full of swagger and bravado.

Later, Mr Kilpati tells me: "The only true Englishman left in the world is in India." After riding out with the Ooty Hunt Club, I can understand why he feels that way.

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