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Raj rules in sole hunt survivor east of Suez

Ooty, July 19: Nearly six decades after independence from Britain, the harsh realities of India still stop at the gates of the 169-year-old Ooty Hunt Club.

Generations on the subcontinent have grown up without first-hand experience of the Raj or its ways, yet Indians approaching the club get the same response now as they did in 1947.

Short sleeves and sandals are not permitted at any time, a jacket and tie are mandatory at dinner — regardless of the heat — and Indian food only occasionally forces its way on to the menu at the expense of faux British cuisine.

According to members, the Ooty Hunt is the only one surviving east of Suez.

Its membership is now 95 per cent Indian but the enthusiasm of the Master of Foxhounds, Col Balbir Singh, is undiminished.

Braced by the crisp, chilly weather across the undulating Nilgiri hills, 1,100 miles south of Delhi, the colonel carries out a thorough inspection and briefing on hunt etiquette.

He leads 34 riders, including four women, after eight hounds across Ooty’s rolling Home Downs, 7,500ft above sea level, at the opening meet.

In what is perhaps the world’s fastest hunt, committee members ride resplendent in their knee-length scarlet coats with green collar — the dress instituted in 1907 by a British Army officer.

The area is littered with British associations, military and sporting. Adjoining the hunt club is the 115-year-old Ootacamund Club, where Lt Col Sir Neville Chamberlain drew up the rules of snooker in 1884.

Following minor mishaps — one of the women riders fell off and was fined a bottle of beer in accordance with club rules — the field returns after two hours to a well-stocked bar and sumptuous breakfast.

One of the British riders, Major Fabian Roberts of the Irish Guards, who took part with his wife, Melanie, described it as a “magnificent ride” with “excellent pomp and ceremony”.

The Britons’ presence offers a clue to the hunt’s survival.

Major Roberts is one of several foreign officers at the Defence Services Staff College at nearby Wellington, named after the Duke of Wellington in the 1840s. It has a long history of supporting the hunt.

As Col Singh says: “The hunt provides leadership and teamwork that are essential for all military officers.”

The hunt was formed by the 74th Highland Regiment in 1835 to chase sambar deer, bison, wild boar and the odd tiger. It has hunted every year since, with only a brief pause for the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

The British still offer a helping hand.

Shepherd, an English foxhound from the Hurworth Hunt in North Yorkshire, recently joined the club to improve the bloodline of the local hounds.

Shepherd struggled with the climate when it landed in New Delhi and, when temperatures reached 107F in the quarantine kennels, its Indian escort feared the dog might perish.

The club managed to get the quarantine restrictions waived and moved Shepherd into an air-conditioned room at the airport, used by the National Security Guard commandos for their pedigree sniffer dogs.

Shepherd is now enjoying the refreshing chill of the hunt’s kennels and the welcoming yelps of fellow English foxhounds.

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