Guwahati: Assam's tea industry is gearing up for the annual 'Jorhat Races', the historical equestrian event held in Jorhat, Upper Assam. The event, started in the days of the British Raj, has been held for almost 140 years.
Horses played a part in the tea gardens over 100 years ago, and initially, the races were run by horses on different estates. These days, local ponies run the races.
The unique races start Feb 18 this year, and will end Feb 23.
Races will be held every alternate day -- on Feb 19, 21 and 23 -- between 12.30 p.m. and 4.30 p.m.
Unlike other equestrian events, this one is open only to local ponies.
Held in an area surrounded by the lush green tea plantations, the Jorhat Races are a much-awaited event, especially among those working on the tea estates and posted at defence establishments in Upper Assam.
The venue of the races is the Jorhat Gymkhana Club. It hosts an elite crowd during the races.
The "Jorhat Races" were started in the days when the tea industry here was in its infancy. It has since witnessed the vicissitudes of time, from the British Raj to freedom of the country.
The first Jorhat Races were held Jan 16, 1877.
"The idea behind the races was to showcase tea planters' equestrian skills in a carnival-like atmosphere, where all levels of workers involved in tea plantations could be thoroughly entertained," said Prabhat Bezboruah, president of the Jorhat Races.
"The races remain a reflection of our past, and a milestone in the road to retaining our history and heritage," he said.
"The event is Assam's equivalent of European or American secular festivals like Oktoberfest in Bavaria, La Tomatina in Spain, or even Mardi Gras in New Orleans," said Bidyananda Barkakoty, a member of the Jorhat Races, adding that while each of these festivals have beer, tomatoes or music as their anchor points, the Jorhat Races have local ponies engaged in races.
"This year, we intend to combine car rallying and equestrian events with the Races to add to the content, and widen viewer appeal. A riding exhibition has been arranged on the Feb 22, which we hope will give the audience plenty of thrills. In addition, a dog show by Assam Rifles Dog Unit, Jorhat, has been planned Feb 20," Barkakoty said.
"There will be local ponies participating in the race. We expect about 100 ponies to race this year," Barkakoty said.
When it first began, the race was run by horses used by British planters in tea estates and gardens. In those days, it was the bloodstock (purebred horses, that often are progenitors of a breed), which raced at Jorhat. These were brought from as far as Calcutta (known these days as Kolkata) and thoroughbreds were imported by British planters.
In addition to the races, polo tournaments were also held.
The week-long races were also packed with parties, exhibitions and other competitions like tennis and golf. But the use of horses for tea garden purposes decreased gradually during the mid-1900s and this threatened the continuation of the historical event.
However, the British planters soon found a way out and tied up with the local riders of the Mising tribal group. (The Mising tribe of Assam traces its origins to Mongolia, China and Tibet).
The Mising tribals have raised ponies for generations, and assist in their upkeep and transportation.
"Tea garden horses were thereby replaced with Mising ponies and the races were reborn, since then," Borkakoty explained.
He said that the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, organisers of the oldest horse races in the country, have also been part of the Jorhat Races. The club has offered technical guidance to further the sport, and ensure the smooth conduct of the heritage event.