It’s the 1850s. A group of soldiers of the East India Company along with some British tea planters, on their travels to Silchar in present-day Assam, watch some exiled Manipuri princes play a game that looks like hockey on horseback . Teams of men, wearing turbans, pheijom ( dhoti) and shin-guards and wielding mallets, face off on sturdy little ponies.
This is Sagol Kangjei, the origins of modern-day polo. Legend has it that Manipur’s deity-king Kangba invented the game in the 14th century BC, and that in 33 AD., deity-king Nongda Pakhangba organised the first polo match. The story goes that the gods celebrated the establishment of the Meitei kingdom with a fierce game of Sagol Kangjei, with teams of seven men, following rules created by none less than Marjing, the God of Polo.
The British are entranced by the game. In 1853, Capt. Robert Stewart, a member of East India Company cavalry, participates in a match with Manipuri players in Silchar and six years later, along with Col. Joseph Sherer, sets up the world’s first polo club, the Silchar Kangjei Club.
Within the next decade, polo catches on in the rest of India followed by England. The first match is organised by Edward “Chicken” Hartopp at Hounslow Heath in London in 1869, after which the rules of modern polo are established by The Hurlingham Club, London. The rest, as they say, is history — the game is now played widely across Britain, Australia, Argentina and the U.S., among 70-odd countries.
Back home, in Manipur, the game is still deeply entrenched in culture, religion and in the everyday lives of people — it has its own horse-deity, shrine and ceremonies and is still played during Lai Haraoba, a Meitei festival. Unlike in other parts of the country and world, polo in the State evolved as an egalitarian game — almost every family owned a pony, and even today people across social classes play the game.
But there has been a quiet revolution in Manipuri polo: nearly two millennia after the first match is said to have been played, the mallet has passed on to women. Today, the State has about two dozen women professional polo players representing two-thirds of all women polo players in India. They come from modest backgrounds, but come with fierce determination. And they start young.
Thoudam Tanna Devi, 19, from Imphal says she started playing polo at 12. As a Class X student, she learnt horse-riding and took part in an equestrian tournament organised by Assam Rifles. “My father was initially not happy that I was playing. But as a child I would follow my uncle (a polo player) to practice sessions.” Thoudam has now taken part in major polo tournaments in Manipur, and has made forays into other sports including rowing. “But I want to devote myself fully to polo now,” says Thoudam.
Jetholia Thongbam, 22, is one of the foremost stars among the Manipuri women players. She started playing seriously as a teenager six years ago and is currently training for tournaments outside Manipur. She was lucky, she says, that her family supported her from the very beginning. Irom Sangeeta, 21, began playing polo at at 15 and has played for K&M Memorial Riding School in Singjamei.
While marriage and children have had some women opting out of the sport, many women, including in their 40s, have recently also begun to return to the game. Asem Romabati, in her 40s, from Thoubal district, says she had to overcome initial objections from her family when she started playing polo in 1993. Today, she plays for Thangmeiband Youth Polo Club. Ningthoujam Ashakiran from Bishnupur district has been playing polo since 1991 and now plays for K&M Memorial Riding School.
It was the efforts of the All Manipur Polo Association that got women into the sport in the 1980s. Then, in 1992, women participated in a match held in Manipur. The turning point came in 2016. Huntré! Equine, a social enterprise that builds on the links between sports and culture, brought international attention to Manipur’s women players. They brought in American players to Imphal to compete against Manipuri teams, roped in sponsors, and drummed up publicity for the first Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament presented by Manipur Tourism and organised by the All Manipur Polo Association in Imphal.
At the end of the tournament, two players from Manipur, Sumita Salam and Tanna Thoudam, travelled with their coach and 30 dancing drummers to Jaipur where, along with two more players from Jaipur and New Delhi, they played against their American counterparts in an exhibition match cheekily named Cowgirls v Gopis. In 2018, two home teams were created and named after the guardian deities Marjing and Thangjing to play visiting teams from the U.S., Australia, Kenya, and the Indian Polo Association in Imphal.
The stories of Manipur’s women polo players have now taken the form of a film, Daughters of the Polo God . The 33-minute short by Roopa Barua, which won the Festival Director’s Award — the highest honour — and the Best Documentary Short Award at the Equus Film Festival New York in 2018, tracks the journey of the matriarchs of this game who overcame adversities to gallop ahead. The film is scheduled to be screened across the U.S. this year.
When Huntré! Equine was formed, it had another central mission — to save the unique and dwindling breed of Manipuri Ponies. The tough-hoofed, hardy animal has been used prominently in war, religious ceremonies and sport. But, over the years, it has faced severe neglect. According to a livestock report filed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, only 500 ponies remained in 2014.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research regards the Manipuri Pony as the “original polo pony of the world” and as “one of the purest and prestigious breeds of equines of India”. But with shrinking grazing land, the encroachment of wetlands and smuggling across the border where they are put to use as beasts of burden, the ponies are under severe threat.
On one of his trips back home, New York-based Manipuri culture curator and founder of Huntré! Equine, L. Somi Roy, was aghast to see ponies foraging on the streets of Imphal. “According to Manipuri mythology, our pony descended from Samadon Ayangba, the fearsome winged beast created by Marjing. It had become very destructive and so he chopped off its wings, and that’s how the Manipuri Pony was born. My interest in preserving this pony is not merely about saving a rare breed but also revitalising our culture. It seemed to me the sacred value of the pony was decaying along with other aspects of Manipuri culture,” says Roy.
Save the pony
His first task was to shape public opinion — create awareness about the importance of the pony and encourage people to return to the traditional game. He spoke to government representatives, reached out to polo players in Jaipur, New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, and internationally to those associated with the game in Kenya and the U.S. He organised events, charity dinners, and used social media to begin dialogue. Happily, the Manipur government implemented the Manipuri Pony Conservation and Development Policy in 2016 to provide ponies space in reserves in different districts, and to end their export.
‘Woman Power, Woman Polo’ remains one of the mottos of Polo Yatra, the women’s polo initiative of Huntré! Equine. Manipur’s women polo players are all too often forgotten, says Roy. This, despite the fact that the State has India’s longest polo season (November to March), two international and four State tournaments. “They don’t have the opportunity to play outside the State. Women’s polo in India needs a home and we feel that Manipur should be that home.”
N. Ibungochoubi, secretary of Manipur Equestrian Association, concurs: “There are five all-women teams and they are doing exceedingly well, but there is no national level polo player here yet even though Manipur is the birthplace of polo.”
Things are looking up now for polo’s matriarchs. For the first time, in 2018, seven high-achieving women players were given government jobs by Chief Minister N. Biren Singh.
Coming up, from January 17 to 21, the 4th Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament will be presented by Manipur Tourism. It will be produced by Polo Yatra (the Indian women’s initiative of Huntré! Equine) and organised by All Manipur Polo Association.
Teams from the U.S, Canada, Kenya, and Argentina will play a Manipuri team and a team from Indian Polo Association. The matches will be held in Imphal’s Mapal Kangjeibung — the oldest extant polo ground in the world.
(Additional reporting by Iboyaima Laithangbam.)
Passionate about travel, Turkish cinema and pointless trivia, the writer’s posts on life and travel can be found on Instagram @ananyabahl.