soniasarkar26

Polo, anyone?

Posted on: July 14, 2014

Manipur is seeing a resurgence of polo. Schools have been encouraging students to play polo and women have taken to the game. Polo clubs have been mushrooming in the state.

When the city downs its shutters, H. Kaoba, 35, gets ready for action. A bandh in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, may force most residents to stay indoors. But Kaoba heads for the fields, where, with a group of like-minded people, he plays a robust game of polo.

“During bandhs, when everyone else is home, we play polo,” says the farmer’s son.

Kaoba has been playing the game for the last 22 years. But he says there has been a sudden interest in the game in the strife-torn state in recent years. “It seems to have got a new lease of life.”

If youngsters across the country are donning their football T-shirts or white flannel for cricket, the Manipuri youngster is atop a pony, playing polo — which is believed to have originated centuries ago in Manipur. Known as Sagol Kangjei, it was a game played by princes and their companions. Today, it’s every Manipuri’s favourite sport.

Polo clubs have been mushrooming across the Imphal valley and in neighbouring Bishnupur and Thoubal. Around 20 clubs have opened in the last three years, taking the total number to 33.

“Even five years ago, there were only a few clubs,” says Girimohan Singh, former captain of the state team.

The game has picked up also because the state has been hosting global polo tournaments. Though the tournament was first held in 1991, it was discontinued for lack of funds. But it was revived in 2012, and polo enthusiasts are now waiting for the 2014 games, to be held in November.

The tournament, being held with corporate funding, features teams such as England’s Hurlingham polo club and others from France, Germany and Thailand. The organisers hope that UK’s Prince William will be present during the matches as the chief guest.

“We also want him to play an exhibition match with our local players where the game will be played in the traditional way with a team of seven players,” adds S. Budhhachandra Singh, president, Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), the body which organises several local matches and the international tournament.

The game, which is elsewhere played on horse with sticks and balls, has changed over time in Manipur. The teams don’t consist of seven members but of four members as everywhere else.

The only difference is that players sit on Manipuri ponies and not horses. These ponies, about 52 inches at the shoulder, are much loved beasts. There was a time when every house in Manipur had a pony, used for transport as well as to ward off enemies. The sturdy ponies now cost anything from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

Manipuris say that families have started keeping ponies at home. “And anyone who has a pony invariably learns to play polo,” MHRPA vice-president Rajkumar Dilip Singh says.

But the game is not restricted to affluent families. Schools, cutting across strata, have also been encouraging students to play polo. “Children start to learn the game at the age of 12 or 13. Schools want us to give them lessons in pony riding, and then polo,” Girimohan Singh, who is a member of the Nambul Mapal Polo club, adds.

“We encourage the children to keep the tradition alive. Polo was first invented in Manipur and the state should be known to the world for this,” he stresses.

Legend has it that the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it was in the 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, that the game attracted attention — especially of the British. It gained in popularity as an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up India’s first polo club in Silchar.

In 1864, a British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

“Those were the days when everyone played polo — not just kings but ordinary people too,” Dilip Singh says.

The game remained popular till the 1950s. But with construction and the disappearance of grazing grounds for ponies, interest waned. In 1977, the MHRPA was set up by a handful of polo enthusiasts to revive the game. In 2005, the MHRPA started a pony breeding farm. It has 102 ponies which are hired by players who don’t own one.

Manipuri women have been playing the game, too. The state has five teams of women players, and there are separate tournaments for women participants.

Deventy Devi, a 28-year-old player, stresses that polo is a challenge for women in a patriarchal society. “It was hard to convince my parents that I too wanted to play polo because there was a pony at home. They were convinced only after I proved to be a better player than my brothers,” the Imphal Riding Club member says.

Manipuris have another reason to be interested in the game. Polo players often find jobs in the government. Sinam Bimol Singh, 38, is now a constable with the Manipur police — and believes that it’s polo that got him the job. “I learnt the game because I loved it. But I never thought it would help me get a job — and an identity,” he says. Bimol is one of the 30 players who have government jobs.

Some of the senior players feel that the game needs a professional touch. “If the government gives it a push, we will make Manipur visible on the global map. We want to give us a different identity through the game of polo,” says 54-year-old M. Manihar, who has been playing for the past 30 years.

For those who grew up in times of violence, polo is not just fun. “When we are mounted on a pony, we feel that the world is under control. There is no fear even if the state is under siege,” Kaoba says.

Polo’s past

Polo the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it attracted attention in 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba.

Polo is said to have become popular after an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up the first polo club in India in Silchar.

In 1864, A British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

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  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...
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