Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

Having been born and brought up in India’s North-Eastern state of Assam, from my childhood I heard stories from my uncle and aunts on the game of Polo and how it originated in India’s remote the North Eastern state of Manipur. I never gave much importance then.

But today in hindsight, the manner in which Polo has evolved as a sport of the rich and the famous, I feel fortunate enough to belong to that region from where Polo originated and to be able to offer a glimpse of this exciting game to the discerning global Polo aficionados.

Far removed from mainland India, Manipur is located in northeast India and is bordered by Nagaland to the north,  Assam to the west and Mizoram to the southwest. On the south and east, Manipur is surrounded by Myanmar. The capital of Manipur is Imphal, a city with a rich virile past and a vibrant cultural melting pot. Manipur is often referred to as “The Jewel of India” because of being encircled by nine hills with an oval-shaped valley right at the centre.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

The Guinness Book of Records in its 1991 edition on page 288 writes “Polo: Origins: Origins of Polo can be traced to origins in Manipur State c. 3100 B.C. when it was played as Sagol Kangjei”. In fact, the Manipuri Pony is one of five rare equine breeds in India and equestrian experts are of the opinion that the Manipuri Pony is a descendant of the renowned Mongolian Pony – a combat horse that is steeped in legends, mythologies and folklore.

Legend has it that King Kangba invented the game way back in the 14th  century BC, and in 33 AD., the first-ever polo match was organized by King Nongda Pakhangba. In popular Manipuri folklore, there is mention of this unique game and the fact that even celestial gods of the Hindu pantheon were delighted by the foundation of this game, which they regarded as the victory to the erstwhile Meitei kingdom of Manipur. Today,  as it was the precedence centuries back, people of Manipur have the belief that the Manipuri Polo rules were crafted by none other than “Marjing –  The God of Polo”.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

In the 1850s, when India was ruled by the British East India Company, British soldiers and tea planters, on their way to Silchar came across a motley crew of Manipuri princes’ indulge themselves in a game that looked like playing hockey on horseback. They were stupefied by the sight of men wearing turbans and clad in traditional “pheijom”, shin guards and brandishing mallets engrossed in an exciting sport.

In modern times the British who are so enamoured by this great game first took the lead role and brought the game out in the open,  albeit a Polo Game in the year 1853 under the watchful guidance of  Capt. Robert Stewart, who then was an integral part of the British Cavalry. This is recorded in the annals of Polo as the first official game – British East India Cavalry, Vs Manipuris! And the spirit of enterprise shown by the Britishers meant that in a span of just six years, in the year 1859, Col. Joseph Sherer, set up the world’s first polo club –  The Silchar Kangjei Club.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

And the rest as they say is history – the game of polo began to spread its tentacles in the rest of India. Needless to say, UK was the first nation in the Western world where the first game of Polo was played, courtesy of Edward “Chicken” Hartopp at London’s renowned Hounslow Heath in 1869. Polo historians are of the opinion that it was after 1869 that connoisseurs of the game came together to formulate the rules under the stewardship of London’s Hurlingham Club that would go on to govern this great game.

Today, thanks to the pioneering spirit of sportsmanship shown by many nations, the game that originated in one little speck of paradise in India’s remote North East – Manipur, is today played in more than 70 countries! What is more, in spite of being one of the hardest equestrian sport, Polo has evolved so beautifully over the past century and more than today this game which grew from its humble origins in the Indian state of Manipur is today associated with the rich and the famous.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

According to Bill Askins, an experienced Polo player with years of experience under his belt – “It certainly helps your polo career if you have a lot of money to spend on the sport! To play top polo takes courage, athletic ability, real riding skills and a lot of time to devote to the sport! Very few people have these prerequisites so it limits the number of participants in this magnificent sport. In the USA there are now about 3,000 people that play on a regular basis”.

The modern-day Polo game ambience is best summed up by Polo enthusiast Jeannine Clark thus – “Finely-dressed men drink vintage champagne from tall flutes, while women in designer hats nibble on fresh fruit and croissant sandwiches from tables covered with white linens. As they sit and sip, they while away the afternoon watching one of the oldest and fastest team sports in world history.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

A scene from a Merchant Ivory film, perhaps? No – it’s just another summer Sunday at the San Diego Polo Club in Rancho Santa Fe, California”.

That’s the kind of excitement that prevails in high profile Polo matches. On the one side, you have the glitz and glamour of the audiences under the tent and on the other hand, you have players dressed in colourful attires pummelling the field on horseback.

Today, as a much-published travel writer and born in India’s Marlboro Land – The North East, it is a matter of pride when I see great strides being undertaken, particularly by women folks in the birthplace of Polo!

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

Huntre!Equine – a social welfare organization credited with linking women Manipuri Polo players with the Western world, the US to be precise, is the stuff of legends. Polo linkages aren’t all that easy, even more so when it involves a Third World country. The costing part is especially tough and not many are eager to sponsor.

But, beating all odds, Huntre!Equine has managed a miracle – organizing Polo matches by inviting American Polo players to participate in games involving Manipuri women Polo players. Needless to say – It a marriage made in the heavens!

As the astonishing success of Manipur’s Huntre!Equine’s landmark effort spread worldwide to the discerning Polo audience, the unsung stories of Manipur’s women polo players have now metamorphosed in the form of a movie – “Daughters of the Polo God.” This 33-minute inspiring documentary by Roopa Barua, won the highest honour at the New York Equus Film Festival – the Festival Director’s Award as well as the Best Documentary Short Award at the prestigious  Film Festival in 2018. If all goes well, the film is listed to be screened across the U.S. this year.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

Manipur isn’t just about Ponies & Polo. In fact, its  a multi-ethnic state  and  the hills are inhabited by fascinating tribals – the Nagas, Kukis, Rongmei (Kabui), Simte, Suhte, Tangkhul, Tarao, Thadou, Thangal, Vaiphei, Zeme …….A veritable Anthropological hotspot to say the least!

Consider for instance the Ao Nagas. After marriage, the bride and the groom leave their family of orientation and establish a new family. The Ao Nagas do not practice polygamy. As a family unit, they live in complete harmony. If a younger member of the family quarrels with a senior person of the family, it is believed to be ominous not only to the family but also to the village as such.

Ao Nagas also have clans and they are patriarchal and exogamous.  The ‘Morung’ or Bachelor’s Dormitory plays a vital role in the social life of the Ao Naga village. Most ‘Morungs’ are fine work of craftsmanship. It serves both as a guardhouse as well as a clubhouse. The women are forbidden to enter inside a ‘Morung’. The young boys are admitted into the ‘Morung’ every three years to get trained practically in order to become perfect men in all spheres.

Manipur – The Birth Place Of Modern Polo

Visitors intending to visit Manipur would do well to coincide their trip during the annual Naga Hornbill Festival, which is a weeklong celebration showcasing the very best of Naga tribal culture and heritage. The Festival is held in the month of December at the charming village of Kisama in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.

The theme of the festival is very apt – “Window to Nagaland”. Apart from the Hornbill Festival, Manipur has numerous other ethnic festivals that are held with great pomp and grandeur. Check out with the Tourism Department for exact dates.

There is a sense of mysticism associated with Manipur, which has been further heightened by its remoteness and geographical isolation. One can not only savour the ancient animist practices, but if for instance, one were to embark on a jungle expedition, the lure of bonding with some of the most fascinating tribes on planet earth would invigorate even the most jaded of travellers.

As Manipur emerges as a centre of polo in India, here is wishing the discerning global traveller a journey of stupendous dimensions. Are you up for the RIDE?

Subhasish Chakraborty

Travel Journalist

Subhasish Chakraborty has been working as a Travel Journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international In-Flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathy Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a Consultant.