The Amritsar Fair (1)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 22 October 1884


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1 p. 72

Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, lies thirty-three miles east of Lahore. Its religious shrine, the golden temple or Darbar Sahib, stands in the midst of a great tank, or artificial lake. The city holds two annual fairs on the date of religious festivals; the second, on the festival of Diwali, is that described by Kipling in the two-part article that follows.

Living as he did in a society where nearly everyone either rode, or drove, or played polo, or all three, Kipling was quick to pick up the horsey talk of Anglo-India: he writes very knowingly here of the points of the ‘Indian horse’.

After the brief excitement of owning his own horse in his first year in India, Kipling himself rode very little, preferring to drive. When the motor car became practicable, Kipling was one of the earliest to have one, and thereafter he never troubled about horses again.

The Article

(From our own Correspondent)

An orderly, good-tempered crowd, restrained only by one policeman and slight lattice fence from overwhelming the platform, was waiting at every station between Lahore and Amritsar on Friday night. The mail-train had left Lahore so crammed and double crammed, that even the compressible native passengers were compelled to admit there was no more room anywhere. But their faith in the traffic arrangements was simple and undisturbed. Other trains, they had been assured, would arrive ere long; so, after a little deferential jesting with the policeman at the wicket, these expectant congregations sat down to roost quietly under their blankets, till it should please Providence and the authorities to send them an ‘especial’. An English crowd would have trampled through the rotten fence, bonnetted the policeman, and swooped down on the comparatively empty first-class carriages, rather than have been delayed an hour on their trip.
Close upon the heavily-laden train came an equally crowded one conveying a detachment of the South Lancashire Regiment from Mian Mir to Allahabad, en route for Aden. Nearly three hundred perspiring khaki-clad men were set free on the platform for half an hour. During this time it was resolved, nemine centradicente, that the beer was abominable; that to travel ten in a compartment was equally so, and that Aden was infinitely superior to India ’cause it was nearer ’ome’. Then the mass of boisterous humanity was suddenly blown back, as it were, into the reeking carriages, by a bugle call, and sailed out into the darkness, amid a shower of barrack-room badinage, on its way to the sun-scorched rocks ‘nearer ’ome’. The rest of the night was occupied with ‘alarums and excursions’ — at least this was one wearied traveller’s view of it. Crowded specials seemed to arrive every half hour; and the passengers therein held strident converse from opposite ends of the platform for the next thirty minutes. Horses too were coming in by twos and threes along the road all night, and were picketed temporarily on the outskirts of the plain, where fifteen hundred beasts were already in possession. Expostulatory squeals from the new comers, and the thud of the wooden picketing mallets, enlivened the small hours of the morning.

As soon as it was light enough to read the notice-boards, owners transferred their charges to the regularly laid out lines in the centre of the great maidan under Fort Govindghur. With this move the day’s noise and confusion began. Two-year-olds, savage at the loss of their night’s rest, and maddened with the pain of rowelled bits, were scarcely likely to respect the feelings of their seniors. The three-year-old lines were rudely awakened by a batch of light heeled youngsters, who were being personally conducted to their places, and, from thence, the clamour spread to the outskirts of the gathering.

The scene, so far unobscured by dust, was curious. Twenty or thirty rows, each several hundred yards long, of tethered horses are dozing before sunrise. To these enter some half a dozen prancing, squealing shadows, and, before you shall have time to mark who began it, the whole equine camp is in an uproar. As the gaily embroidered cloths were turned back from each animal’s withers, the keen morning air wakened him to renewed exertions, and the day dawned on a very Pandemonium of horse flesh. One of the last joined had, thanks to a lazy syce, been insecurely tethered, and, breaking loose, warmed his young blood with a gallop across the open. A disgraceful capture, and a pair of chain hobbles, were the end of this outburst; and the rebel was ultimately bought by a remount officer for the Punjab Cavalry. There were, by the way, no less than eleven of these gentlemen on the spot and, as far as can be known, they ‘bulled’ the prices as usual — to the huge delight of the dealers. A lone, lorn Englishman, with a limited purse, begins to wonder whether the purchase of remounts might not be managed on less expensive lines. The dealers are affable to him, very much so; but his attempts at bargaining for any animal over polo height, are gently but firmly set aside. ‘A remount officer’ or more usually two or three remount officers ‘coming to look at that horse Sahib. He not for sale.’ An indifferent bay was bought for Rs. 350, and the dealer was of opinion that he might have done better. The average of prices was about a hundred rupees below this, and one officer purchased a string of fourteen for Rs. 212 per horse. Among the regiments represented, were the 1st Punjab Cavalry, Colonel Bird; the 2nd Punjab Cavalry, Colonels Lance and Grover; the 3rd Punjab Cavalry, Colonel Anderson; the Guides, Major Hammond; the 9th Bengal Cavalry, Major Robertson; the 14th Bengal Lancers, Colonel Pennington; the 15th Bengal Cavalry, Colonel Atkins; and the 18th Bengal Cavalry, Captain Money. One dealer, on whom fate has smiled, was weak enough to confess that there were more buyers than horses — a statement with a good deal of truth in it.

On the extreme right of the camp were ranged the polo ponies, and here, too, prices ruled high. A polo pony is easily manufactured. Take a fairly presentable sixty rupee tattoo; hog mane and tail; stand out for two hundred rupees and there you are. The sight of a remount officer bargaining for a few baggage animals told the tale. Baggage animals, of any stamina, there were practically none; but, a few yards away, you might come across the polo ponies; and these, in prehistoric times, would have been baggage tats. Five hundred rupees was the highest price obtained for any one of them, and a pair were bought for seven hundred. As a rule, the dealers asked three hundred for everything; and generally got something over two hundred. Decidedly, the Amritsar fair is not the place for cheap horse flesh. One powerful black galloway indeed was secured for a hundred and five rupees early in the day, and it would be scarcely too much to say that he was the only bargain of the fair. This statement is, of course, open to objection from every purchaser. They had all, by their own statement purchased a mount ‘worth twice the money you know’. It is a cheerful creed and hurts no one. In point of quality, the yearling and two-year old lines (particularly the latter) were by far the best. The three-year olds, with a few exceptions, were indifferent; and there was very little worth notice among the seniors. It is only natural that this should be so in a recently established fair like the Amritsar one.

The country-bred par excellence — that roman-nosed, goor-fed bolster in which the Punjabi delights — was, of course, very much to the fore. With his head reined in to his bosom, and with quivering hind legs strained as far backward as possible, his lot must have been an unenviable one. A dun-coloured monster, whose (un)natural charms had been heightened by a liberal use of aniline dyes, was specially tormented. The loin cloth had slipped over his tail; his syce was asleep, the flies were numerous; and the tense head and heel ropes allowed no change of position. Nearly all the horses were far too tightly roped — their galled and scarred pasterns gave significant proof of this. Badly formed weak hocks, ditto feet, and a want of bone below the knee — the old established faults of the Indian horse — were visible everywhere. The entire process of producing the first imperfection could be studied from one glance at the lines. First, the young animal is strained and weakened by rigorous heel roping; then, when his hocks are nearly bent the wrong way, the rough-rider’s spiked bit forces him to throw his whole weight on them for five minutes at a time, while the native crowd applauds. The finished article is fired and variously be-devilled. What careful breeding and good tending can accomplish, was shown in the case of a chestnut gelding by a Government stallion out of a country- bred mare.

The youngster, he was only seventeen months’ old, stood a little over fourteen hands, with an immense amount of bone below the knee, and was nearly perfect in every other respect. He has already gained his owner seventy-five rupees of prizes at various shows, and has received a prize here. Any hint at purchase was promptly repulsed. ‘I have treated him like my batcha, and he shall go back to my village again, that my izzat may be increased therein. If you really want him I will sell for five hundred — not a pie less.’ Some remount officer, in a year or two, will learn, to his cost, the merits of that colt, if the animal does not go down country. When his owner understood that no one was prepared with the amount he asked, he became confidential and even eloquent; relating at great length the history of the batcha’s youthful ailments. How once he nearly died, but it was the will of God that he should recover and become the pride of his master’s heart.

Other dealers were not so discursive, but, when they had a few minutes to spare on an unprofitable European, they too would talk, and talk well. One black bearded Cabuli appeared to be intimately acquainted with the leading social lights of Simla, and spoke with appalling flippancy of the ‘Paniar kagaz Ilhabad’ [‘Allahabad paper’.] From him it was possible to learn that all other dealers were rogues and blackguards; that such an one’s horses were only kept alive by liberal doses of massala, that such another’s polo ponies would all go lame in a week; and, finally, that ‘Codlin was your friend not Short’. It would be ungenerous to doubt the word of so genial a host. His tent was a pleasant shelter at mid-day, from whence to watch the dusty, squealing pickets, and the superb horsemanship of the rough riders. From five in the morning till dusk, these men, clad in flowing white pyjamas, and armed with snaky whips wrestled hand to hand with the frivolities of equine youth, and the matured devilries of age. Kickers kicked, rearers reared, and the man-eater went about ‘like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour’, till it seemed impossible that a man should enter the melee and live. Presently, out of the dust cloud, a bare-backed horse would be forced into the thirty-foot ride between the tethered lines, and, before he had time to realize his position, the yelling Cabuli on his back, had sent him flying along the turf to the shade of the trees on the main road. Here, a quick-witted beast would do his best to dislodge his rider — a performance abruptly concluded by the cutting whip, and another mad gallop down the rides.
By noon it was as well to escape these impromptu cavalry charges, and get away to the cattle fair. Though the pride of the Punjab may be in its horses, it is surely the patient byle that carries the prosperity of the province on its galled and blistered neck. Thirty thousand head of cattle — a scanty gathering as compared with other years — were to be found two miles down the Jullunder road. Apparently the whole province, each man with a buffalo or cow, was going thither. The roadway was choked with the slow-moving, good-tempered crowd, and, at a few yards distance, men, ekkas and camels melted away into a fog of white blinding dust. The two miles must be traversed for the most part at foot pace, for the cattle are by no means as complaisant as their owners, and all the yelling in the world will not force a drove of buffaloes one hands-breadth from their course. Nor is any advantage to be gained by attempting to press forward through the thick of the grimy herds.

A small pony is at once sandwiched between two portly bullocks, and has, perforce, to accommodate his pace to theirs. Arrived at the main gate, the whole earth was covered, as far as one could see, with bellowing beasts and men. From one corner arose a chorus as of the groans of the damned. Some hundreds of camels were enjoying themselves after their own peculiar fashion, and their nasal misereres rose high above the deep hum of the fair all day long. Every portion of the ground was packed with buyers and sellers and onlookers; these last being in great force. When an Englishman made overtures to purchase a cow, the owner promptly went as near to a hundred rupees as he dared, and a dense crowd walled up the perspiring Briton lest he should be minded to escape. Under these circumstances the market was depressed.

A striking feature of the gathering, to those who have any recollection of the humours of an English cattle fair, was the sobriety of men and animals alike. Once only in the course of a three hours’ visit did a ‘milky mother’, irritated by an ungallant attempt to tell her age, exceed the bounds of beastly decorum. The result was ludicrous, for the dense crowd could neither fly nor give way; and the cow was wedged helplessly, head down amid a tumult of affrighted brown legs.
Towards evening the fair was gradually deserted in favour of the greater attraction in the city — the illumination of the Golden Temple, and once more the dusty road was choked with people hurrying northwards, hot, tired, but apparently very happy. Beyond a few cases of snatching ornaments from children there were no police offences during the day.