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Rocky squelches through the rich black mud of Lamphelpat outside Imphal, stopping occasionally to nibble on tufts of grass. All around, herds of Manipuri ponies are gazing contentedly, the males casting proprietary looks about the landscape as the mares nuzzle their gamboling foals.
If you shut your eyes to the buildings looming at the edge of the wetland, seeming to advance stealthily like an ugly concrete version of Great Birnam wood in Macbeth, you can almost imagine how this valley looked for centuries, when it was the preferred grazing ground for thousands of Manipuri ponies.
“These semi-feral ponies have a unique genetic character. Unlike other horses that cannot survive if they get wet, they can stand in water up to their shoulders and continue to graze,” says journalist Ningthoukhongjam Ibungochoubi, secretary of the Manipuri Pony Society.
Sadly, most of the ponies are now gone, driven almost to extinction by untrammelled development in Imphal that has destroyed meadows and reclaimed lakes. This has pushed the quadrupeds, one of only five indigenous Indian horse varieties that include the Marwari, the Kathiawari, the Zanskari and the Spiti, onto the streets, where they are often run over, or worse, choke to death on plastic waste swallowed while foraging in garbage dumps.
A loud rumble distracts the ponies from their sedate munching. A gigantic truck has dumped yet another load of mud into Lamphelpat. The Imphal campus of the National Institute of Technology (NIT) will soon sprawl across this area. Other parts of the pat or lake have been marked out for a range of projects including, it is rumoured, a baseball field.
This is absurd considering it’s at the cost of polo, the game that first made Manipur internationally famous and is as dear to many Meiteis — the majority ethnic group in the state — as gully cricket is to the rest of India. Indeed, Imphal has Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest living polo ground in the world, and polo clubs abound in the state where the game isn’t the preserve of the upper class.
Everywhere, a sport’s popularity can be gauged by the enthusiasm of children. Children here can often be seen riding ponies down the less busy streets and leading them through their paces. The sight of tiny Avinash (7), expertly riding his favourite pony Bala bareback across the rolling grasslands that are part of the Manipur Horse Riding & Polo Association’s breeding farm, is especially wonderful. “Riding is part of our way of life, our culture. Sometimes kids even ride ponies naked,” laughs Joyremba Haobam, Managing Director of CubeTen, a software company in Imphal, as we watch a polo march.
Riders and ponies are equally intent on the game as they charge around the field, grunting, yelling, mallets thwacking the ball. There’s much daredevilry on display as human and animal synchronize perfectly. Later, the feeling that you’ve stepped into a magical place — part Mongolian steppe, part Vaishnavite homeland — intensifies when a rosy-cheeked girl on a gray pony charges past on the main street.
Most of the time, though, Manipur calls to mind human tragedy, the excesses of AFSPA, Irom Sharmila’s brave struggle, the women who stripped naked to protest the brutal killing of Manorema. The rest of the country knows about these tragedies but few are aware of the slow choking of the state’s environment.
“Lamphelpat’s peaty soil is made up of the decaying matter of plants and organisms. It has taken thousands of years to evolve but due to our carelessness, it is going to vanish,” says wetland ecologist S Shyamjai Singh, who explains that the lake absorbs the city’s pollutants and keeps the weather moderate.
His colleague Bidan Singh, Secretary of the Manipur Wetland Society, points out that the death of Lamphelpat will wreak havoc on Imphal. “In the early monsoon, the water drains to the Samushang channel, which connects to the Nambul river. At the onset of the monsoon, the excess water from the river gets stored in Lamphelpat. It is a natural flood control system,” says Singh, who once spent four weeks pursuing his research in a hut on a floating bit of biomass on Loktak lake, the largest freshwater lake in the north-east. Reckless reclamation has blocked both the free flow of water and its storage. “If Lamphelpat is filled up, the whole city of Imphal will be flooded. It’s already happening,” he says. “The role of a wetland is to be a kidney, a sponge. The government is spending crores every year to mitigate the flood. If they just preserved Lamphelpat, it would solve the problem,” he says.
It isn’t just scientists who are worried. “If we don’t save Lamphelpat, even the remaining ponies will vanish,” says Momon Singh, a former jockey who reveals that when a project threatened Vijay Mallya’s stud farm in Karnataka, the tycoon had ensured that plans were changed. Unfortunately, the Manipuri pony doesn’t have a powerful benefactor like Mallya and the breed’s extinction seems imminent. A pony census shows that while there were 1893 ponies in 2003, the number fell to 1218 in 2007. “We’ve done an unofficial count before the census is conducted later this year and now there are only about 400 ponies left,” says Ibungochoubi.
To its credit, the state government is trying to provide a sanctuary near the temple to Lord Marjing, a Meitei deity. “Most Manipuris became Vaishnavite Hindus around the 14th century. Before that, we followed Sanamahism. With Vaishnavism, we continued to worship our old gods like Iboudhou Marjing, who is believed to be the inventor of polo,” says Ibungochoubi as we trudge up the steps to the temple. At the top, is a beautiful idol of Marjing, lord of prosperity, good health and virility, seated majestically on Samadon, a sweet faced Manipuri pony. Alongside the idol are marble ponies rearing up on their hind legs. Devotees bearing vivid purple water lilies from the Heingang lake nearby kneel down and lose themselves in prayer. The experience is strangely moving and leaves you feeling grateful for glimpsing other ways of knowing, of believing, of being.
“In our traditional belief, Ibudhou Marjing was a master horseman and his horse could fly. So the pony is an integral component of our civilisation,” says Ibungochoubi adding that Meitie horsemanship had ensured that Manipur stayed independent through the ages. “Polo — the modern form originated in Manipur — is sometimes called a peacetime war exercise. Our history shows that some games had 200 people on horseback on each side,” he says. “Polo players from all over the world dream of playing here on the original pony, which is the Manipuri pony. For them, coming to Manipur is like a pilgrimage!”
If the number of ponies continues to dwindle, though, it’s a pilgrimage that could be discontinued. “According to international norms, if any breed is fewer than 2,000 in number, it is considered endangered and if the number of fertile females is fewer than 300, it is considered critically endangered. The Manipuri pony is actually critically endangered,” says Ibungochoubi, who hopes the central government will step in to save the breed and preserve its grazing grounds.
Back at Lamphelpat, polo player Romen Singh, fondly watches a foal ambling down a dirt track. “Khambaton!” he calls. In response, the little pony canters up excitedly. “His mother died after he was born so we bottle fed him,” Romen says as he holds out two sugared loaves. Khambaton demolishes both before rejoining his brother, a magnificent older chestnut. It’s a heartwarming scene that reveals much about the close relationship between many Manipuris and these hardy ponies.
As still another truck dumps its load into the lake, you wonder if Rocky and Khambaton and the rest of the herd will survive the destruction of this grassland, whether they will end up as road kill. You wonder if Manipur too will succumb to the excesses of development that are diminishing lives in other parts of India; if it will let go of all it holds dear, its unique culture and its unusual relationship with its ponies for the evanescent pleasures of ‘modern’ life.
You can only hope that Iboudhou Marjing will show the way.