Manipur’s horse hockey to modern polo

Even as the world celebrates the popular sport, its survival looks bleak in the north-eastern state

RK Nimai Singh

IN 2019, England celebrated 150 years of modern-day polo. While the game is popular worldwide, little is known about its connection with India in general and Manipur in particular. During the seven years’ devastation of Manipur after the invasion by Burma in 1819, many Manipuris fled to Cachar and Sylhet of the then Assam. They often played sagol kangjei (horse hockey) as a pastime. In 1854, Lt Joseph Sherer, who was posted with the Sylhet Light Infantry, saw the game being played. He was impressed by the courage, skill, horsemanship and presence of mind in the game. Along with Capt Robert Steward, assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar, and British tea planters, he would play the game with some Manipuris. The two are regarded as the first Englishmen to play sagol kangjei. In 1859, Steward was appointed the deputy commissioner of Cachar and Sherer the assistant deputy commissioner. Under their initiative, the Silchar Kangjei Club was established in the same year. Soon, the game reached Calcutta, the capital of British India, and in 1862, the Calcutta Polo Club was established. Today, it is the oldest living polo club in the world.

Since the Manipuris played the game in what is known as “Leibak Macha Tana Sannaba” (Play in a Cultured Manner), the British adopted written rules in a meeting of the Silchar Kangjei Club in 1863. The game reached England in 1869. The first recorded match took place between the 9th Lancers and 10th Hussars at Hounslow Heath in 1871. The British found the term ‘sagol kangjei’ a tongue twister, they adopted the simpler word ‘polo’ from Balti term ‘pulu’, which means a ball. The rules were subsequently revised in 1887, leading to the birth of modern-day polo.

In the four-player polo, there are no goalposts. But in the seven-player sagol kangjei, there are no goalposts and once the ball crosses the goal line, it is counted as a goal. The game is divided into four chukkers with specific time in polo, but in sagol kangjei, it is based on the number of goals, say 13, or 15, or 17.

The first mention of the game was made in 1606 during the reign of Meidingu Khagemba (1597-1652) in ‘Cheitharol Kumbaba’ (‘CK’), the royal chronicle of Manipur. ‘CK’ mentioned that the game was very popular during the reign of Meidingu Kiyamba (1467-1508). ‘Kangjeirol’, a treatise, mentions that the game was started by King Kangba, who ruled during the pre-Christian era. According to popular oral tradition, the game was played between the friends of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba in 33 CE when he was introducing Queen Laisna to the royal crowd. The names of the players on that occasion were Marjing (now regarded as the presiding deity of sagol kangjei), Khamlangba, Irum Ningthou, Ikop Ningthou, Irong Ningthou, Nongshaba and Pureilomba on one side and Thangjing, Khoriphaba, Wangbren, Yangoi Ningthou, Mayokpa, Oknarel and Loyalakpa on the other. They are now all deified.

Unlike elsewhere where polo is an elitist game, in Manipur, it is egalitarian. In his book ‘Manipur and Naga Hills’, Sir James Johnstone wrote, “Between the residency ground, the Sana Keithel and the great road was the famous polo ground, where the best play in the world might be seen. There was a grand stand for the royal family on the western side, and one for myself on the north. Sunday evening was the favourite day and then the Princess appeared and in the earlier day, the Maharaja. In my time, one of the Maharaja’s sons, Pucca Sana, and the artillery men were the champion players.”

An entry in ‘CK’ mentions that the British officers stationed in Manipur left for Cachar to play polo on October 29, 1854, and returned on November 3, 1854. Another entry notes down a match between Empress Victoria’s army and the Manipur Levy on January 29, 1855, at Imphal, probably the first international match, though the match between the US and the British in 1876 is recognised globally. In 1869, a Manipuri team played in Calcutta where in the first match for 13 goals, the British could not score even once. It was replayed again and again by adding more players on the British side but still they lost. The next day, the seven-player Manipuri team took on the nine British players for a 17-goal match. The British scored only one goal. This can also be regarded as the first international polo match, if the 1855 match is discounted since it comprised only armymen. During the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1901, a team from Manipur went to play exhibition matches at Calcutta and Delhi.

In deference to the Manipuri ponies, which stand about 12 hands high, all animals in polo, including those above 14 hands high, are called pony. About the Manipuri pony, a recognised breed in India, TC Hudson, in his book ‘The Meitheis’, wrote, “Manipuri pony are strong, wiry creatures, rarely more than 12 hands in height, and are fed on grass, the saddle is large, it peaked both in front and back and the most curious feature about the saddle is the addition to it of a pair of leather flaps which project around the legs of the rider and afford some protection from a blow…”

During the annual Sangai festival from November 21 to 30, an international polo tournament is held on Manipuri ponies, while in January, an international women’s tournament is held that culminates on January 21 in the Manipur Statehood Polo Tournament. In November last year, the first Chief Minister’s Sagol Kangjei Championship was held during the Sangai festival to ensure the survival of this indigenous game. The number of ponies in Manipur has been irreversibly dwindling due to the lack of grazing grounds. Efforts are on to increase the number of original polo ponies, which are semi-feral in nature. The government and enthusiasts are doing their bit, but more needs to be done. 

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