What is common to tea, Assam, the Assam Valley Light Horse Cavalry, Manipuri polo, the Allied forces, Dibru-Saikhowa and Mising tribesmen? Well, none other than the Jorhat Races!
Jorhat was earlier spelt Jorehaut – a combination of two words. Jore meant a pair, like in a pair of shoes, and haat meant bazaar. The anglicised version sounded more like haut and therefore Jorehaut. The old racetrack was laid on Jorehaut Tea Company’s property, the latter being the second oldest tea company in the world. The event was held at the Old Gymkhana racecourse at Gormour mauza before they were shifted to Chekonidhora mouza about a mile away next to the main road (the present location) in 1885.
Possibly Assam’s oldest organised racing event
Started over a century ago, there are well documented records of the Jorhat Races painstakingly preserved at the Jorhat Gymkhana Club. This was the original race venue and it continues to be so. The annual races are still held in the second week of February on the mile-long racetrack at the club.
The races here are considered among the oldest horse racing events in Assam. The earliest accounts can be traced to 1864 as highlighted in a book written by Oscar Felix, a German posted in Lombating (now Duflating) tea estate. His vivid narration of the races in his book–Assam 1864–makes for a fascinating read.
A goodwill gesture
The underlying idea for these races was to display tea planters’ equestrian skills in a carnival like atmosphere. At the same time, it was also a gesture of goodwill, where all levels of tea plantation workers could be thoroughly entertained. The spin-off would be a small surplus from the week long festivity, which would then go towards the welfare of the economically weaker participants.
The 1871 Jorhat Races were held over two days, beginning on the 28th of December. The Amgooree Cup on the final day was valued at Rs 400 – a princely sum in those days and a pointer to the prestige associated with the event. Other regular race events included the Derby, Welter, Factory Hacks, Pony Race, among others, with British as well as native (read Indian) jockeys. The race prospectus for the 1871 races was printed in The Oriental Sports Magazine along with other race events taking place in the Orient that year.
Of more recent vintage is the Assam Valley Light Horse Trophy. It was presented in 1932 and the trophy remains on display in the club bar. Records also show that races were held under the supervision of Honorary Race Secretary C.J. Showers and there was also a trophy called the Princess Cup; it was awarded following a two-day event.
The races were a most looked forward event
The Jorhat Races have been an annual feature and from the outset, the racehorses were thoroughbreds owned by tea planters and the Assam Light Horse Cavalry. The racecourse, meanwhile, served a dual purpose; it was also the camping and parade ground for the Assam Light Infantry Brigade. The races were a most looked forward to event in Jorhat and they drew spectators from far and wide. On race days, it was not uncommon to find a deserted town because most were at the stands.
At the turn of Independence in 1947, there were two major events that threatened the continuity of the races. First, the Assam Valley Light Horse Cavalry was disbanded in 1947 and second, tea planters stopped using horses for their kamjari (work) with the advent of motor vehicles.
The Mising jockeys and their inimitable style
The Jorhat Gymkhana Race Committee then arranged for ponies to be transported from Manipur and they somehow managed to continue the fixtures. But transporting ponies from afar, for only the race week, was not considered feasible over the long run.
The Jorhat Race Committee deliberated on other alternatives and it was then that a suggestion came along of reaching out to the Mising tribesmen – an amicable people who mainly lived along the banks of the Bramhaputra. So, Mising riders and ponies were invited, and the Jorhat races have continued since. It is some 70 odd years now that Mising jockeys have ridden in their inimitable style – bareback, and without saddles and stirrups.
The continuity of the races has been ensured by the stewards of the Jorhat Races, members of the Jorhat Gymkhana Club, tea planters and the government. Currently, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC)—organisers of the oldest horse races in the country—provides technical guidance to further the sport. The RCTC also helps in the smooth running of this heritage event.
The World War 2 connection
There is an interesting story about the race ponies that have been taking part in the Jorhat Races since 1948. When World War 2 was at its peak, the Allied Forces had set up army camps in Tinsukia to stave off Japanese intrusion on the eastern front. After the battle ended with Hitler’s surrender, the soldiers returned, leaving their horses behind.
The abandoned horses took to the forests of Dibru-Saikhowa and in due course, many were caught by the Mising tribesmen. According to the Assam Forest Department, there are still an estimated 70 feral horses in the Dibru-Saikhowa reserve. Though such horses are found in the woods of Spain, Portugal and the US, they are otherwise uncommon in this part of the world.
The legacy lives on
The Governor’s Cup is currently the major annual trophy awarded by His Excellency, The Governor of Assam. The ambit of the Jorhat Races is now wider – it now includes golf and tennis tournaments, a car rally, horse and dog shows, live bands, ladies’ football and of course, the horse race itself. With over 10,000 people coming together for the week long festivities, this is one event that must feature on any heritage buff’s bucket list.
Meanwhile, the Jorhat Gymkhana Club continues to be a lively place, still occupying a place of pride in the community. For this grand old institution, age is only but a number.