The Indian state of Manipur, the birthplace of modern polo, is home to the oldest active polo ground, Mapal Kangjeibung. Here, the “game of kings” is the province of the common man: Masons, laborers, government employees and police officers populate the roughly 20 active polo clubs in Imphal, the capital.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the first official polo tournament played in its modern form. Before British influence, sagol kangjei, as polo was originally called here, was played with seven players per team. The mallets were made of cane, and the ball was made from bamboo root. The name polo came later: The Tibetan word for bamboo root is “pulu.”
Today, Manipur follows International Polo Association rules, and teams consist of four players. Sagol kangjei is played only as an exhibition sport at tournaments and festivals.
The decline of polo and of the Manipuri pony, which was once used in warfare and is now endangered, began when state patronage for polo players ended, around the time of India’s annexation of Manipur; the royal family of Manipur had patronized the sport. Though attributed to many factors, a major reason for the decline of the ponies is that they are used for little else today besides polo, and with almost no income to be made playing polo there is little value seen in keeping ponies.
A 2007 survey of the pony population conducted by the Manipur Department of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Services put the population at 1,218. But an informal survey by the Manipur Pony Society in August 2014 found that the population could be as low as 500.
As it stands, there is no official government policy regarding the preservation of the Manipuri pony or sagol kangjei. Both have survived because of occasional patronage by private enthusiasts, but all involved know that is unsustainable in the long term. Players and advocates for the pony see little hope for the species and the sport if there is no government intervention. No pony, no polo. No polo, no pony.