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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
'Tally Ho!' cries the huntsman... in India?
By Rahul Bedi in Ootacamund

Ooty hunt
The hunt has been going since 1835 (photo by Namas Bhojani)
In England, hunting has been derided as the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.

But in India it is more a case of the unconventional in full pursuit of the unavailable.

The riders keeping traditions alive in southern Tamil Nadu state belong to a bygone era - and these days lack even quarry.

Organisers say that hunts staged by the Ootacamund - or Ooty - Hunt Club, are the only surviving meets in the sub-continent.

The opening meet has just been held and every weekend for the next 10 months the hunt will gather in the crisp, early morning mist in the undulating Nilgiri hills.

It is, in reality, an anachronistic throwback - a scene which epitomises the Raj era of yesteryear.

Traditions maintained

Before the off, master of fox hounds Colonel Balbir Singh inspects riders, who include four women, and briefs them on etiquette.

It's bizarre seeing Indians behave and dress like Englishmen from a bygone, forgotten era
Former Ooty resident Roshin Varghese

Hunt members are resplendent in knee-length scarlet coats with green collars, the dress code instituted in 1907 by the British and observed ever since.

Before setting off across the Ooty Downs, riders solemnly toast the august organisation which has made it all possible.

Barring a couple of years during the 1857 Mutiny - which Indians call the first war of independence - the Ooty Hunt Club has continued uninterrupted for 169 years.

It doggedly maintains traditions that many say had vanished elsewhere - even in England.

"It's bizarre seeing Indians behave and dress like Englishmen from a bygone, forgotten era in Ooty," says Roshin Varghese, a former resident of the town.

"It may be archaic but it seems to be thriving."

Social credentials

Since independence in 1947 the hunt has been supported by the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, 20km (12.5 miles) away.

Successive Indian commandants have continued support for the hunt, despite its close association with colonial domination.

Since it was the inaugural hunt, we took it easy on the riders, because many are first timers
Major JS Mann
Ooty Hunt

Hunting appeals to budding officers eager to establish their social credentials.

Overseas military officers at the college - from the UK and other Commonwealth countries - also take part.

"It is considered prestigious to be part of the hunt," Col Singh told BBC News Online.

The college provides horses for the hunt and maintains the 30-odd hounds who trace their ancestry to England.

In May, Shepherd, a four-year-old hound, was imported to improve the local bloodline which had been weakened through in-breeding.

Bacon and eggs

After a two-hour ride, the horsemen and women return across the grassy, wooded slopes to drinks from the bar and a slap-up breakfast.

Southern Indian rice cake is served with spicy coconut chutney and hot lentils alongside the traditional English breakfast fare of bacon, eggs and sausages.

Ooty hunt
The hunt goes on 10 months of the year (photo by Namas Bhojani)

"Since it was the inaugural hunt, we took it easy on the riders, because many are first-timers," says Staff College Equitation Officer Major JS Mann.

But during the next few months the rides out will get progressively more arduous, until the season ends in April with the hunt ball - the social highlight of Ooty's summer calendar.

The Ooty hunt was established in 1835 by members of the 74th Highland Regiment and initially went after sambur deer, wild boar and the odd tiger.

The club later turned its attention to jackals - foxes are not found in the region - but has remained quarryless since these were banned in 1977.

Even so, today there is no shortage of riders joining the hounds to gallop over the Ooty Downs.

The hunt may also be the only one in the world officially allowed to stampede across a golf course - on the Wenlock Downs - where golfers must give priority to riders.

It is a rigidly enforced pecking order, in keeping with the oldest traditions of colonialism.


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