Pride of Patiala

Chanda Singh on ‘Miss Haigh’ London, 1909

IT is easy to miss Fateh House if one is not careful. Situated on the Upper Mall, Patiala, a theatre and a row of shops sandwich the entrance to the house of late Brigadier Fateh Singh.
The reason for visiting the house is to find out more about General Chanda Singh, one of the best polo players of the world. A man who was a friend of kings, be it Maharaja Rajindra Singh of Patiala or King Alphonso of Spain, is little known in his hometown. The star of polo in Patiala eclipsed in the 1920s itself along with the eclipse of Chanda Singh. Others, including his son Fateh Singh Dhillon continued to play the game, but polo vanished soon after Independence from the city.

Neither are the General’s great-grandchildren play polo or are associated with the current exercise by the Punjab government to revive the tradition of polo in the city. "We are not even invited to the games", says Avtar Singh Dhillon. For the Dhillon family, it is difficult to forget their heritage."We live with it", says Avtar Singh even as he gets up to get photo albums associated with his family, not content with the virtual art gallery on the Sport which is on display in his drawing room.

The drawing room is definitely a feast for the the eyes of a sports lover. General Chanda Singh and other members of the family, including the latter’s younger brother Thakar Singh and the General’s son Fateh Singh Dhillon find pride of place on the walls and the mantle pieces. "Thakar Singh played together with the General for 18 years and they formed the core of the Patiala Tigers team", says Avtar adding Thakar Singh had even won the Emperors Cup at the Patiala Coronation Darbar in 1911 in the "Point to Point" race on Black Prince. "He led his nearest rival by two miles," he adds by way of explaination while talking about the "horse power” of his forefathers.

Chanda Singh, incidentally, was not even born in Patiala. Hailing from Sursinghwala village in Amritsar, Chanda grew up among horses since his family was known for breeding quality horses. His great-grandfather Sardar Bahadur Singh used to finance the Sikh armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who had bestowed upon him with the title of "Shah". This natural affinity with horses induced Chanda to enlist with the 16th Bengal Lancers at Jullundur in 1882, when he was 18. Chanda immediately set about at what he was best at, training ponies for British officers. His affinity with horses made him take to polo and his progress saw him in the regimental team soon as "back", a position  he was to keep for life. Maharaja Rajindra Singh, who was forming a polo team during this period, saw the potential of the young man and inducted him into the Patiala Tigers. It was then that the heydays of Patiala Tigers started with Jaswant Singh (later Major), Joginder Singh (later Colonel) and Capt Thakar Singh forming its core alongwith Chanda Singh.

The legendary player continued to play till the age of 58 and it was the final match of his career, the Polo Championship of India, played in Delhi in 1920 which led to the downfall of polo in Patiala. The Patiala team which was leading by one goal in the last chukker against Jodhpur, lost by a solitary goal with Rao Raja Hanut Singh scoring twice after some Patiala players received injuries. This game saw the breaking of polo sticks by Patiala players.

Chanda’s exploits saw him virtually conquering the world on the polo field. As a colonel, he was ‘sighted’ by Jean de Madre, a polo enthusiast. The Comte requested the then Maharaja to loan him Chanda Singh for his team. Chanda sailed to Europe in 1909 and the Comte’s team won the Polo Championships of England at Ranelagh and Rochampton.

After these tournaments, Chanda Singh went on to Spain at the request of King Alphonso and played as a member of the King’s team in the Spanish Polo Championship of 1909 held at Madrid. The King’s team won the championship for the first time. King Alphonso also promised him a noble rank if he would bring his family to Madrid but Col Chanda Singh refused saying he was in the service of the Maharaja of Patiala and had come to Europe only due to the latter’s patronage. During this European sojourn, the polo player even went to Paris to win the French Polo Championship at Velliere and later in England where his team defeated the visiting American side to wrest the Westchester Cup. 

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