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The Jorhat Gymkhana – Not Just a ‘Ball House’ Anymore!

Hardeep Singh Matharu | September 24, 2020
The Jorhat Gymkhana – Not Just a ‘Ball House’ Anymore!

The word gymkhana was most probably derived from the Hindi word gendkhana literally meaning ‘ball house’. It was originally referred to (and still refers to) a social and sporting club. In English-speaking countries, a multi-game equestrian event performed to display the training and talents of horses and their riders was also referred to as a gymkhana. The Bombay Gymkhana was established in 1875 and the Jorhat Gymkhana the very next year in 1876, following which, the British opened several others all across the country.

The Jorhat Gymkhana was the idea of various tea planters working in the tea estates located in and around Jorhat, led by the then superintendent of the Jorehaut Tea Co. – J. Huttman. In 1876, the original building comprised of just a small wood house and was situated in the middle of the racecourse, about two kilometers to the east of the present building.

A history of many firsts!

In 1885, the present club house was built by importing material, masons and carpenters from Calcutta, the British headquarters and is the first building in the district raised on an iron structure. Bulldozers from the Ledo and Makum coalfields were used to clear and level the jungle. Electricity came when its own generator was installed at The Gymkhana in 1912 and the club got its telephone connection 25 years later on 10th November 1937.

In 1926 the first asphalt road was laid in the district, connecting the club house with Sibsagar town. The first ever airplane to land on North East Indian soil, the GI-AA-X, landed at the club grounds in 1928. Bernard Leete, the owner-pilot of the plane, flew to Jorhat at the request of A.C. Tunstel of the Toclai Tea Experimental Station.  Tunstel wanted to airlift his ailing wife to Calcutta for treatment.

Lord Irvine, the Viceroy of India visited the Gymkhana on January 4, 1931 along with his wife and framed photographs of their visit adorn the club house walls. It was here, at this very club, that the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a stirring speech on 15th December 1937, pleading with world leaders to back the Indian freedom movement. The club also hosted a member of the British royalty. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the club on 16th December 1960.             

In the 1850s, some British tea planters found the locals playing the game–that later became polo–in Manipur along the Indo-Burma border. Thus was formed the Cachar Polo Club, in 1859, in Silchar, Assam. It was the first polo club in the world! Other clubs followed soon, including the Jorhat Gymkhana Club and the Calcutta Polo Club. Polo continued to be played as a sport at the gymkhana until the mid-1960s. It was played on alternate days along with tennis and golf. Polo has now given way to Cycle Polo.

India was the first country outside Great Britain to take up golf

Set up in 1876, the club golf course at is the second oldest one outside the British Islands, with the Royal Calcutta Golf Club being the first. In fact, the oldest golf course in the US, The Oakhurst Links was built much later, in 1884. Today, this 6036-yard, 18-hole, par 72 course, is affiliated to the Indian Golf Union, the governing body for golf in India.

The Jorhat Gymkhana Club regularly conducts golf tournaments, many of which date back to as early as 1902. The Beg Dunlop Cup (1903), the Lamprell Cup (1945), the Ruston Cup (1954), the Craig Cup, the Jorhat Open Cup, the ONGC Cup,  the IOC Cup, the Rhino Army Cup, the ASC Cup, the Bokaholla Cup, the Jorehaut  Cup, the ATPA Cup and the ABITA Cup are some of the major tournaments played here. Golfers from all over India compete for beautiful silver trophies. The club is now contemplating the addition of a golf range where anyone can come and get a feel of the game. The 4000 square feet auditorium on the first floor of the building has an open view of the golf course and the race track in front.

The club also has a beautiful cricket ground and is a famous venue for holding many tournaments like the CK Naidu Cricket tournament, the Vijay Merchant Trophy, the Duleep Trophy and many other inter-state matches. In winters, clubs in the vicinity play matches against each other practically every weekend. Three well-manicured grass courts attract many tennis enthusiasts and as per records available with the club, football tournaments were held here between 1913-1953.

The gymkhana boasts of two very old but well-maintained billiards tables and members regularly indulge in a game of billiards. The club also has a swimming pool, which is open during summers.

Of horse races and movies

The first of the races were held in 1877, the idea behind them being to showcase the planters equestrian skills. By the mid-1900s however, the planters stopped using their horses and so for the past 70 + years, Mising riders from the Brahmaputra bank and their ponies regularly take part in the races. It is thanks to the stewards of the Jorhat Races, members of the Jorhat Gymkhana Club, tea planters from nearby gardens and the government, that the annual races are held, till date, in the second week of February. The Jorhat Races are now a week-long event, including, apart from the race itself, golf and tennis tournaments, a car rally, horse and dog shows, live bands and ladies’ football.

The club was one of the first to purchase a cinema projector in 1945 at a cost of Rs.20,000 so that members could watch their favourite movies on weekends. In earlier times, cinema rolls were transported by train from Howrah to Mariani railway station and both new releases movies and classics were screened for the members. The cinemascope projector and the sound system are still in good working condition, although a new digital projection and sound system was added to the inventory a couple of years back.

The iconic building stands even today, resplendent in its heritage and colourful history

The Gymkhana is spread across a vast expanse of land of 180 bighas and the managing committee has made it a point not to add any new structure to the ancient building so as to retain its heritage look. The three beautiful teak panel bars with high ceilings and warm fireplaces have an old-world charm that is difficult to replicate. In fact, the Jorhat Gymkhana Club has been featured as one of the top 100 elite clubs of India in the coffee table book ‘100 Elite Clubs of India’.

The Jorhat Gymkhana has survived the vagaries of time and grown from strength to strength. Despite the various changes brought about by different people and their cultures, the clubhouse, along with the racecourse and golf course, stand as living testimony to the rich heritage and history of its members and of Assam as a whole. Tourists from both within India and abroad, who visit the club, on invitation, always leave mighty impressed.

To read about the Jorhat races, click on the link here

Hardeep Singh Matharu

Hardeep is an active member of the Jorhat Gymkhana Club and is serving as the joint secretary. He is also a steward of the Jorhat Races and is its current treasurer. Hardeep is keen to help promote tourism in the North East and loves travelling, photography, cooking and learning about historic events.

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Chitra Datta
Chitra Datta
3 years ago

One point – my experience st this club was playing bridge till the early hours in the morning while my tea planter husband was at the bar ! Great time and I hope playing bridge is carrying on.
We used to have an annual flower show too. A nostalgic feelings .

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