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Floods threaten ‘tea derby’ in Assam as horses perish

Not included in the official list are more than 50 indigenous short-stature horses — ponies, rather — that have perished in the Jhangimukh area.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2017 23:25 IST
Pullock Dutta
Pullock Dutta
Jorhat, Hindustan Times
Assam floods,Floods,Heavy rain
The indigenous breed of semi-wild horses, owned by the Mishing community, has been part of the 140-year-old derby organised by the Jorhat Gymkhana Club.(HT Photo)

Assam has seen several floods over the decades but never so bad as to threaten an iconic British-era derby associated with the tea industry.

This year’s deluge in two waves has killed almost 150 people and more than 330 wild animals in the Kaziranga National Park. But not included in the official list are more than 50 indigenous short-stature horses — ponies, rather — that have perished in the Jhangimukh area, about 35km east of Jorhat town.

Jorhat, often called Assam’s tea capital, is 300km east of Guwahati.

There is hardly any research on this indigenous breed of semi-wild horses that the Mishing community own. But they have been part of a 140-year-old ‘tea derby’ organised by the Jorhat Gymkhana Club, one of the oldest watering holes for tea planters in India.

“We lost at least 50 horses in fl- oods this time. There will be a sh- ortage of horses for the races fr- om next year,” Horen Tai, a jock- ey from Tinighoria village, said.

Tinighoria is one of several hamlets in the Jhangimukh area located at the confluence of the Jhangi and Brahmaputra rivers. Another river, Mori Jhangi, weaves through these hamlets before joining the Jhangi.

Used to a habitat rich in water bodies, it is unusual for these horses to drown. Besides, the Mishings let them fend for themselves on the chapories (sandbars or river islands) and bring them home a month before the races to train.

Gymkhana records show the races — at least 10 a day for 10 ponies at a time for three days — started on January 16, 1877, when CI Showers was the club’s first honorary secretary. The race month was later changed to February. It became an annual event with thoroughbreds until 1940 when the indigenous breed replaced them. The switchover was because British planters at that time began preferring mechanised transport to pedigree horses.

With the indigenous horses came the native jockeys, who introduced another tradition — bareback racing.

“The flow of the flooded rivers was stronger this time, which could be why the horses struggled to stay afloat,” Naren Tai, a village elder said.

The Brahmaputra, he added, has changed Jhangimukh’s geography over the years. The river was 10km from Tinighoria once but erosion forced the hamlet to relocate thrice.

Unlike in the past, one has to cross river Jhangi by boat to reach Tinighoria today.

“We searched the chapories after the water subsided but there are no signs of the horses. They never strayed far during floods earlier,” Horen said.

Gymkhana Club member Hardeep Singh said the villagers have informed the club about the loss of the horses. “We are organising flood relief for the villagers as well as the horses,” he said, adding the club would be providing fodder for the surviving horses since there is unlikely to be any grass left on the chapories after the flood.

There have been demands for research on the indigenous horses, whose population is yet to be estimated. The voices grew stronger after local resident Roopa Barua made an award-winning documentary titled Riders of the Mist in 2015.

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 23:25 IST