The gods of polo

It is a Sunday afternoon as Kolkata Polo 2010 (17-25 December) gets underway. The murmur of the crowd dwindles to near silence as the horses canter to the centre of the field with their riders restless to begin. Before you know it, the umpire throws a white ball between the two teams and there is a spurt of energy as the sounds of galloping hoofs and snapping wooden mallets ring into the air. It is hard not to be fascinated by the sheer skill, power and speed of polo – the game of kings, one of the oldest and most fast-paced team sports in the world. 

Photo: Fatima Chowdhury

Cradled in a corner of India's northeast, the beautiful state of Manipur lays claim to being the place of origin of polo. According to the ancient scripture Kangjeirol (The Art of Polo) believed to be dated before Christ, the game was introduced at a festival during the reign of King Ningthou Kangba in 3100 BC. The king at the grounds skillfully used his walking stick to dribble a bamboo root clump. The next day, his subjects began to play the game on horseback, as his queen Leima Tanu Sana watched eagerly from the shades of her royal canopy. The earliest version of polo thus came to be known as Sagol Kangjei, which in loose translation means Kangba's stick on a horse or pony.

In Manipur, polo gets its charm from the legends passed from generation to generation. The indigenous people of Manipur trace their ancestral lineage to the Mongols and are today a blend of Mongoloid and Aryan cultures. Up until 6,000 BC, they made their settlements along the hills and plains of Manipur, but thereafter, they, along with other migrants from Southeast Asia, moved towards the Manipur valley, taking the game of polo along with them. There are also claims that polo originated in the harsh encampments of the nomad warriors of Central Asia and that the Persians played a similar game known as 'Pulu' ca 525 BC, but the Manipuris' bond with the game is something special.

Lord Marjing, the chieftain of the Chenglei tribe, is recognized by the Manipuris as the deity who introduced polo to the human world. According to legends, it was the Chenglei tribe that first domesticated and bred the Manipuri ponies and encouraged the equine culture in the valley. Even today, in ritual ceremonies, mostly during the Lai-Haroaba festival (loosely translated as 'merry making of the Gods'), the descendants of the tribe make offerings of mallet and bamboo root to Lord Marjing. In the villages of Manipur during this religious festival, a Maibis (priestess in Manipuri) performs a unique dance form outlining the game of Sagol Kangjhei with a mallet in hand.

In ancient times, before the beginning of any Sagol Kangjei game, women in traditional Manipuri attire gracefully made an offering of sweets, home-grown vegetables and gifts to the kings as a mark of respect. This is a tradition that is meticulously followed even today except the king is now replaced by an important dignitary. Another customary ritual still followed is the blowing of a Moibung (conch shell in Manipuri) by a priest to herald the beginning of Sagol Kangjhei. Needless to say, the pageantry of it all is mesmerizing.

Once the conch shell is blown, players mounted on ponies slowly make it to the edge of the field. Dressed in cotton or silkknee-high pheijoms (dhotis) with short sleeved jackets and kokyets (turbans) on heads fixed by chin straps known as khadangchet, the players look as if they belong to another era. Interestingly, the colour of their jackets is determined by pana . Panas are translated as social strata, which are based on the nine districts from where the best players from each district are selected to play high level tournaments. The word 'pana' is said to be introduced during the reign of king Khagemba (1597 to 1652) when the Manipuri polo flourished as a military sport and the panas represented the different administrative units. The colours green, white, red and yellow are reserved for the higher status panas while those from the lower level wear black and blue. The winners receive jobs, lands and prize money.

The players ride barefoot holding leather whips on their left hands and mallets wrapped in colourful cotton threads on their right. Although barefoot, they do take care to adequately protect themselves. Their ankles are protected by a layer of thick cloth or a piece of leather meticulously bandaged by a narrow strip of cloth, and their shins, calves and heels are guarded with pads or thick leather straps. Since polo ponies are equally important, Manipuris suspend big soft colourful cotton balls from the ponies' heads and backs to protect them from the mallets and the jostling among the players.

Photo: Fatima Chowdhury

In modern times
Sagol Kangjei, unlike modern polo, has very few rules, with several interesting facets. The game is played on a grassy rectangular ground known as Kangjeibung, measuring about 160 sana lamjei in length and 80 sana lamjei in breadth (1 sana lamjei = 6 feet). Sometimes, the polo field may be much smaller to adapt to the local terrain. There is no goalpost; the entire breadth of the ground is used as the target for scoring a goal. Interestingly, no left-handed player is allowed to play the game for safety reasons as the rules are formed around right-handed players. There are no thoroughbred horses in Manipur, but the Manipuri ponies, a cross between Mongolian and Arabian wild horses, selectively bred for centuries have their own charming legacy. At a mere height of 44-52 inches, these ponies have high endurance and a smart turn of pace. Moreover, unlike the modern game where the horses are changed after every chukker – a polo match consists of 4-6 chukkers and each chukker is about 7 minutes long – a Manipuri pony plays through an entire match. The polo season in Manipur lasts for about eight months, excluding the months that fall between Laicheppa (June to July) and Lai Lengkhatpa (September to October) because of the weather conditions.

In ancient times, the duration of Sagol Kangjei was determined by the number of goals to be scored. Before the match got under way, both teams determined the combined total score, which had to be seven or more. If the teams failed to meet the target score, the game simply continued on to the next day. Today, however, the game lasts about 40 minutes with a 5 minute break after the first 20 minutes, and the team with the most goals wins.

Polo player Ajit Singh feels that the ferocity of the competitive spirit sets Sagol Kangjhei apart from the modern Polo. He finds Manipuri polo far more demanding than modern polo, as the players and their ponies both endure the ultimate test of courage, skill and perseverance. Basanta Singh, captain of one of the Manipuri teams, adds that the pace and the skills needed to play Sagol Kangjei are also different from modern polo as the Manipuri players still use the traditional polo ball made of well seasoned bamboo root and a four-and-a-half foot-long polo stick made of seasoned cane.

Seven being an auspicious number in Manipuri culture, there are seven players in a Manipuri polo team. But, these are no ordinary players: each of them is perceived as a deity, representing one of the seven distinct ancestral clans in the valley. As one player describes it: 'Polo is a game of the gods where one must play with integrity and fairness but at the same time seek victory.' Basanta adds that the legends perceived the polo ground as a battlefield where one had to fight with passion, commitment and a sense of duty to protect and preserve the honour of one's clan.

So far, the game of Sagol Kangjei has survived through the waves of time with its people holding on to beliefs and rituals passed through generations. As Bung, a player, proudly states young children in Manipur are enthusiastic about Sagol Kangjei and learning the game at the age of six or seven is as much an obligation as going to school.

However, change is inevitable and this ancient game struggles to cope with the new challenges set forth by a modern world. There is a sense of urgency to preserve this game from obliteration. Mostly, the poor peasants play the game. The urban youth find it difficult to keep their passion alive because of the exorbitant cost of maintaining polo ponies. And despite having as many as 45 polo clubs in Manipur, as Basanta points out, there remains a lack of better infrastructure to train the local youth. 

The dwindling numbers of the Manipuri pony are another concern, with development threatening their natural habitat.  The Indian government has stepped in, providing grants to the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, which, in collaboration with the National Research Centre on Equines, Hissar (Haryana), is now working towards scientifically breeding the Manipur pony. The Indian Army has also been helping the Association in keeping Sagol Kangjei alive, by not only training young players but also giving them an opportunity to play in events organised within and outside the State. For example, two teams from Manipur played an exhibition Sagol Kangjei match during this Kolkata Polo Season 2010 held by Fort William Riding & Polo Club.

The future of Sagol Kangjei lies largely in the hands of the people of Manipur. Their enthusiasm and passion continues to provide the much needed recognition and appreciation for the sport, but today there is a realization that this is more than just a sport. As the captain of one of the Manipuri teams, Giri Mohan Singh, puts it: 'Polo in Manipur is a legacy handed down to us by our ancestors. It is something that comes naturally to us. The inspiration to take to a polo field comes from the heart.' Polo is intricately blended in the Manipuri culture. As Basanta says, not only are the Manipuris born to the game but they continue to play it till their death. 

Fatima Chowdhury is a freelance journalist dividing time between Calcutta & Toronto.

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