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Jumbo chukka: Elephant polo gets under way.

With a clash of mallets and the stomping of jumbo feet that shook the earth, the game was under way.

The beasts collided and the ball disappeared in a forest of elephantine legs, raising some dust and much laughter.

It was a classic scrum in the whacky sport of elephant polo.

It is not fast, it is not furious, yet it is as exhilarating - and as elitist - as the equine sport that inspired the jumbo version.

'It is almost like horse polo but in a very slow motion. But I can tell you it is much more difficult,' said retired Indian army Col Raj Kalaan, a former horse polo player who is now a member of the Chivas Regal elephant polo team.

Kalaan was among the 55 players - including three former players from New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, three Thai transvestites and professional horse polo experts - who gathered in the Thai beach resort town of Hua Hin this week for the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament.

Kalaan, who trains horses on his farm outside New Delhi, said some people may think of elephant polo as quirky.

'But it is as competitive as any other sport. Once you are out in the middle you want to win. It not always easy,' said Kalaan, a former presidential bodyguard and battle tank commander.

No question that elephant polo is more difficult than horse polo. Try hitting an object slightly bigger than a tennis ball - while perched atop a behemoth - with a six-foot-long bamboo hammer, or getting your lumbering steed to stop in full stride and turn around when you miss the ball, as players often do.

Connecting with the ball is no guarantee of a goal. After all, a ball can only go as far as the opponent elephant's frame blocking the goal post.

Elephants, which once were the workhorses of Asia's myriad armies and later beasts of burden in the now-banned logging industry, have lost much of their usefulness in the modern age.

Unlike horse polo, the elephant is not controlled by the one wielding the mallet but by a mahout, or handler, who sits on the animal's neck and directs its movements.

Younger elephants tend to be quicker and more agile in making a U-turn or backing up. But they also tend to be naughtier, and are known to pick up the ball with their trunks in the middle of the game and make off - a foul.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 13, 2004
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