Sagol Kangjei: The ancient polo of Manipur, played on the celebrated Manipur Pony

Amit Shah inaugurated a giant equestrian statue of a player, but experts and conservationists believe concerted efforts to save the habitat of the Manipur Pony are required much more.

Part of Home Minister Amit Shah’s programme in Manipur on Friday was the inauguration of a 122-foot-tall statue of a polo player astride a Manipur Pony in Imphal, a project that has been in the works for several years now.

“It is believed that Sagol Kangjei, the modern-day Polo game originated in Manipur. Today, inaugurated a 122 feet Marjing Polo Complex in Imphal. This will surely take the legacy forward and inspire more youngsters toward the game,” Shah tweeted on Friday afternoon.

The game and the horse

Modern polo is said to have originated from Sagol Kangjei, a sport indigenous to Manipur, in which players ride horses, specifically the Manipur Ponies, which are referenced in records dating back to the 14th century.

The Manipur Pony is one of five recognised equine breeds of India, and has a powerful cultural significance for Manipuri society. The Marjing Polo Complex has been developed as a way to conserve the Manipur Pony.

The state government’s Manipur Pony Conservation and Development Policy 2016 refers to the mythology around the Manipur Pony:

“The Manipuri pony has been indispensable with Manipuri society for its socio-cultural association for centuries. Its antecedents, however, are not clear, as one source stated Tibetan ponies as its ancestors while another source stated its origin to be a cross between Mongolian wild horse & Arabian. However, all agreed that it was derived from ancient stock. In some manuscripts, it is referred to as Mangal-sa or Mongolian animal. In Manipuri mythology, the Manipuri pony was regarded to have descended from “Samadon Ayangba” the winged steed of Lord Margjing, one of the guardian deities of Manipur,” the document states.

According to Imphal-based curator and author Somi Roy, the Manipur Pony features in mythological stories, and is celebrated in oral tradition, ballads, and rituals. Historically an important part of Manipuri armies, it is used only for cavalry, rituals, and sport, not for working as a draught animal.

“The mythology is that it was created as a winged beast that had to be controlled because of which its wings had to be lopped off and it fell to the ground. It was created by Sanamahi, also known as Marjing, who is the older of two brothers in an archetypal sibling mythology. He feels that his birthright is stolen by his younger brother Pakhangba and creates the winged beast Samadon Ayangba to try kill his brother. The horse turns out to be really destructive and begins to get out of control. Sanamahi’s father orders him to control it, as a result of which Sanamahi cuts off its wings,” Roy said.

Conserving the breed

However, the small and dwindling numbers of the Manipur Pony has been a cause for concern.

The 17th Quinquennial Livestock Census 2003 had recorded 1,898 Manipur Ponies; the number fell to 1,101 in the 19th Quinquennial Livestock Census in 2012. However, when the Manipuri Pony Society tried to conduct a random survey in the state in 2014, they said they found it difficult to count even 500 of the animals.

“There were some remote parts we could not reach, so I can say that at most there might be around 600,” said N Ibungochoubi, writer and secretary of the Manipur Equestrian Association. He expressed scepticism about the construction of the 122-foot statue to develop the Marjing Pony Sanctuary into a tourist destination.

“Our people have had cultural ties to the Manipur Pony for thousands of years, we worship horses as gods in a shrine. The need of the hour is to restore the natural habitat of the Manipur Pony, which is part of the greater biodiversity of the region. They are driven out of their natural habitat by encroachment, development, and the massive destruction of wetland areas. Because of this, they come out on the streets, and are killed in road accidents or through food poisoning, as they try to survive on garbage. To save them, we have to protect their natural habitat and their natural grazing fields,” he said.

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