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While The Origins Of Polo Might Surprise You, The Ponies That Started It All Are Today Under Threat

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By Binita Kakati:

It may surprise one to know that Modern polo, the exclusive sport of the elite, has its origins in the humble Indian state of Manipur. Sagol Kangjei, as what polo was originally known as, in Manipur is not the sport of the rich and famous but the province of the common man ‘The mallets were made of cane, the ball was made of bamboo root, the name polo came later: the tibetan word for bamboo is ‘pulu’.

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The first polo game to be witnessed by a British officer in 1825, was by the invitation of the then King of Manipur Gambhir Singh. Soon it became a popular sport amongst the British tea planters and the British army. Manipur still remains the home of the oldest polo grounds, which last year hosted the 150th anniversary of the first official tournament of polo played in its modern form.

Since Sagol Kangjei was a sport which was, and still is, a village game played with the indigenous horse the ‘Manipuri pony’- the sport has a special semblance in Manipuri culture. Joychandra Singh in his book ‘Origin of Polo Game’ writes on polo being a folk game in Manipur, which earlier was characterised by an element of danger. Sagol Khongjei was the training ground of the cavalry. It was played to commemorate victories in war, and on occasion of the death of a polo player; custom even now, entails a game of polo on the day of his Shraddha (13-14 days after the funeral) in the nearest polo ground.

Singh underlines the enduring spirit of polo amongst the Manipuri people when he narrates the incident of the Japanese bombing of Manipur on 10 May 1942, thereby bringing it within the war zone. Imphal was depopulated temporarily but the polo players continued to play during the allotted days on the Imphal polo ground. They dug trenches around the ground to jump into when the Japanese planes hovered overhead, and came out to play once the planes were out of sight. There is a different spirit which embodies Manipuri polo, it is not a sport, it is life, and it is slowly dying.

On the 28 of June The New York Times published an interesting article titled “Polo Fades in India on the Backs of Endangered Ponies”. The article chronicled the origins of the sport in Manipur and its slow demise due to the near extinction of the Manipuri Pony- a breed indigenous to the state of Manipur and used for playing polo in the state. As Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist writes: “No pony, no polo. No polo, no pony.

Now what is of interest here, is the fact that the elite and exclusive sport of polo which has many patrons around the world, and has become an ostentatious display of the creme de la creme of society, not only has its origins in the humble and nondescript state of Manipur but is also becoming extinct there and one might wonder why? Especially when one considers the popularity and cultural importance of the sport.

The demise of Sagol Kangjei started with the declining numbers of the most integral part of the sport; the ‘Sagol‘ or ‘Pony or horse’, the defining element of the sport, around the time of India’s annexation of Manipur. While earlier the sport had patrons which mostly consisted of the royal family, at this moment it is a dying tradition. The ponies used for the sport are endangered and their numbers have dropped to less than half at a meager 500 and continues dwindling. With the decline in state support towards the sport, the use of the pony is reduced to almost nothing.

The definition of culture states that it is made of the customs, traditions and the everyday life and practices of a people. The collective manifestations of a people as reflected in sports, in traditions, in their legacies, in turn constitute their culture; which is an integral part of their identity. Not only is the extinction of the Manipuri ponies in question, but the heritage and cultural legacy of an indigenous sport will soon become extinct. It will be unreported, unseen, unheard and one day it will not be remembered.

This is a state in the northeast which currently burns. It burns with curfews, police atrocities, silence on the part of the state and resentment. This is not the only state which has broken out in violence over resentment against the government’s silence towards issues plaguing the state and this is not the only time such an incident has occurred. The states of the northeast although diverse, unique and radically different in their own ways have but one string in common- these states remain unheard and unseen by the government and the Indian media.

In that, perhaps there isn’t much we can do, but there are instances where living in a globalised world has its benefits, in the world of today where the frenzy of the internet has given a free space to one and all. There should not be an instance where a culture, an indigenous breed and a legacy of a sport dies a slow atrocious death.

Almost every civilisation has learnt of its demise only when it was beyond redemption, we as people have learnt of the extinction of a species only after there was nothing left, we have admitted our faults only when there was no absolution. Perhaps this once we should not wait to make that mistake. Perhaps this once we should act before it’s too late.

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