Riding back to the days of the Raj with the Ooty Hunt

INDIA: Rahul Bedi joined the very pukka Ooty Hunt, a colonial survivor which has been going on for 169 years in the Tamil Nadu…

INDIA: Rahul Bedi joined the very pukka Ooty Hunt, a colonial survivor which has been going on for 169 years in the Tamil Nadu region of India

The Ooty Hunt Club, the only one surviving outside England and Ireland, rode to the hounds in the season's inaugural hunt recently in crisp, chilly weather across the undulating Niligiri hills in southern India.

Following a thorough inspection and briefing on hunt etiquette by the Master of Fox Hounds (MFH), Col Balbir Singh early Saturday morning, the field of 34, including four women, followed the huntsman and eight hounds across Ooty's gentle, sunlit, rolling home downs of the Niligiris, located at a height of 7,500 feet and some 1,100 miles south of New Delhi.

Before leaving, they solemnly toasted on horseback the 169-year-old Ooty Hunt Club and the upcoming 10-month long hunt season.


Six of the 10 hunt committee members who rode to the hounds were resplendent in their knee-length scarlet coats with green collar, the dress instituted in 1907 by a British army officer and observed ever since for the occasion.

The remaining Field wore blue blazers over white breeches and, like the committee members, the mandatory, green-coloured Ooty Hunt Club tie.

Following minor mishaps - in which one of the women riders fell off her horse and was promptly "fined" a bottle of beer in accordance with club "rules" and a wayward hound who, after straying from the 10-mile long hunt was coaxed back to the pack by the huntsman - the field returned after two hours of exhilarating hunting across grassy and wooded slopes to a well stocked bar and a sumptuous breakfast.

In deference to the quaint Indian-ness of the hunt, this included south Indian rice cake idlis served with spicy coconut chutney and hot lentils alongside the traditional English breakfast fare of bacon, eggs and sausages.

"It was a magnificent ride with beautiful scenery and excellent pomp and ceremony," Maj Fabian Roberts of the Irish Guards and his wife, Melaine, said of their first hunt in the picturesque Nilgiri or Blue Hills. The tradition has survived against all odds since independence 57 years ago due to the support provided by the Defence Services Staff College located at nearby Wellington.

"The event is old fashioned, but utterly charming," added Maj Roberts who, along with several foreign military officers, is attending the year-long course at the Staff College, located at the site named after the Duke of Wellington in the 1840s by the Marquis of Tweedale, the Governor of the Madras Presidency that administered the area. The Marquis selected it as a suitable place to station a British garrison. Ooty, or Ootacamund to give it its full name, (meaning "a village of huts" in the local Tamil language), barely 12 miles away, had already become the summer seat of the Madras government and a sanitorium for the English sahibs and memsahibs to beat the searing summer heat of the plains.

"Since it was the inaugural hunt, we took it easy on the riders, many of whom are first-timers," Staff College equitation officer Maj J.S. Mann said.

The next 10 - one every month - will get progressively more arduous before the season ends in April with the Hunt Ball, the officer added. A Hunt Queen is also chosen at the eagerly anticipated ball that is the social highlight of Ooty's summer calendar.

The Ooty Hunt was established in 1835 by members of the 74th Highland Regiment and initially hunted sambur deer, wild boar and the odd tiger. Until 1977 the club then hunted mainly jackal - fox are not found in the region - but it has remained quarryless since this was banned.

The Field, however, rides enthusiastically to the hounds over the frequently drizzly Ooty Downs, spread across some 50 square miles of rolling grasslands, criss-crossed by streams and man-made crossings in what is perhaps one of the world's fastest hunts. It has become more challenging over the past three decades because of the newly laid plantations of eucalyptus and pine and barbed wire fencing that have sprung up.

The hunt must also be the only one to run across a golf course - on the Wenlock Downs - but in keeping with tradition, golfers have to call the galloping horsemen through. The hunt rules also dictate that the rider must always keep his horse "well collected" and never override the Master, a penalty of two beer bottles being levied if either of these rules is contravened.

Crafty and thirsty MFH have been known to suddenly stop and calmly watch the field shoot past them in order to realise a rather substantial beer "damage" that is later imbibed by all participants.

The Indian section of the Defence Services Staff College moved after independence in 1947 from Quetta in western Pakistan to Wellington.

Maj Gen W. D. A. Lentaigne, the institution's first commandant, pledged full support to the Ooty Hunt Club, which at the time was facing closure due to a financial crunch.

Successive Indian commandants have generously vindicated this pledge despite the hunt being an anachronism and closely associated with colonial domination. A handful of the commandants have even ridden to the hounds. "Riding to the hounds provides ideal training for leadership and teamwork," MFH Col Singh said.

Adjoining the Hunt Club is the pukka 115-year old Ootacamund Club, where Lieut Col Sir Neville Chamberlain drew up the rules of snooker in 1884. Until a few years ago the hunt began and ended here and the club walls and display cabinets are replete with memorabilia connected to the event.

A strict dress code is maintained at all times. The club, along with the hunt, formed the backbone of British social life in India from the mid-19th century onwards. One British memsahib called Ooty "rather like Devonshire, but with better blooming roses and many servants".

Even today the harsh realities of India stop outside the gates of the Ooty Club, where half-sleeves or sandals are not permitted at any time, tie and jacket are mandatory at dinner, and "concessions" are made to Indian food. Membership is still by invitation and women can only be associate, not full members.