How Manipur Is Reviving Its Ancient Sport To Empower Women And Save Ponies

Today, polo, generally termed as the ‘sport of kings’, is not just played by the privileged or the rich, but also by people from various sections of the society. Persia (modern day Iran) is considered to be the birthplace of polo. However, the modern version of the sport originated in the northeastern state of Manipur, way back in 3100 BC.

In ancient Manipur, the sport was called ‘sagol kangjei‘ (‘sagol’ means pony, and ‘kangjei’ is a game of sticks). In the 19th century, however, the British took this sport back with them. At the same time, polo started to lose ground in India.

However, these days, the sport is gradually making its way back to its homeland, Manipur.

Manipuri ponies and polo players

Manipur is home to the world’s oldest active polo ground. This ground is in Imphal, and is slowly returning to its roots. Here, the earliest records of a polo match date back to the first century AD, when only kings played the game.

But, polo in 21st-century Manipur has redefined itself. In fact, the term ‘polo women power’ has been used to describe the sport’s revival in the state. This connotation came to the limelight in January 2016, when the United States Polo Association (USPA) team arrived here to play against the Manipur women’s polo team.

This event proved to be a major boost for women polo players in the state. It also smashed the notion that only men (or, for that matter, the stronger gender) could play this sport. In fact, this was the first event of its kind that focused on women polo at an international level.

Steven Armour, Governor, National Board of Team USPA, when asked on what prompted him to travel all the way to this part of India, said, “USPA has itself broken the stereotype of polo being a men’s sport. Currently there are 3000 men and 2000 women players in the USPA but we want to attain a 50:50 ratio. We could see a great potential for reviving this sport in its birthplace, Manipur, and hence we thought, ‘What better way than to start here?’”

He also adds that this step would not only help in bringing about an equestrian model, but would also attract tourism. This would therefore increase the need for proper infrastructure to bring about a holistic developmental model in Manipur, as well as the other states in northeast India.

An important point to be noted here is the size of the Manipuri pony, which is much shorter in height compared to their counterparts in America or elsewhere. These ponies are one of the five unique breeds in India – semi-wild ponies found just in Manipur. But their numbers are drastically declining.

L Somi Roy, the force behind organising the USPA tour, says that his interest in polo mostly centres around the fate of the dwindling ponies. He says, “We have been promoting USPA here as part of a way of getting attention drawn to the Manipuri pony which is down to less than 500.”

He also mentions that polo is not just the privilege of the upper classes in Manipur. Villages which keep their own ponies, but may not necessarily be wealthy, are also equal stakeholders in this sport.

There was a time when ponies were revered animals. They were used mostly in wars and during sacred rituals. Today however, these ponies loiter around in the streets, eating garbage. Due to the vanishing grazing grounds, people are finding it hard to take care of these ponies.

Ponies feed on garbage, in this still from “Sagolgi Eigi Wari”

Despite all this, the passion for polo runs high in the state. However, if the ponies disappear, so will Manipur’s polo tradition.

Regarding this, Roy hopes that team USPA’s visit to Manipur will give hope regarding the plight of Manipuri ponies. He also adds that he has no intention of getting ponies from America or elsewhere, given the difficulties faced by polo players, especially from America. He says, “The Manipuri pony is an indigenous part of our culture and our cultural heritage. Hence, we would like to promote the Manipuri pony and try to increase their number in the near future.”

People like L Somi Roy and Steven Armour are on a mission – a mission to revive Manipur’s very own sport. This requires them to save their ponies, whose numbers are fast-decreasing.

They are also on a journey to create a society where men and women stand equal. For this, they are using the state’s indigenous sport. After all, what better way to attain this objective, than by using the state’s home-sport!