The Mapal Kangjeibung, one of the oldest polo grounds of the world, in the heart of Imphal, Manipur, looked unusually crowded for a polo match. The stadium was almost packed. Curious faces peered through the fences separating the main road and the grounds. Here was a crowd clearly interested in a game which hardly attracts visitors in north India. The 8th Manipur International Polo festival had begun well.
"Everyone here knows polo," says Salam Girimohan Singh, a national champion in tent pegging, who was to be my guide for the duration of the tournament. "Nowhere in the country will you find a crowd that'll cheer when you strike well and sigh with you when you miss a goal." Girimohan was true to his word. Standing in the dug-out of the United States team, he cheered for the US polo players playing against the Indian side. I asked him why. Pointing towards a magnificent white Manipuri pony ridden by one of the US players, he says: "That's my pony, Lamdaba! He won the best pony award in the last tournament."
The polo tournament was organised at the same time as the Manipur's annual Sangai Festival, a 10-day tourism festival organised by the state government. Interestingly, both the events highlight two animals endemic to Manipur that are nearing extinction. The Sangai Festival is named after the state animal, the Sangai, a critically endangered brow-antlered deer found in the marshy wetland of Keibul Lamjao National Park, about 45 km from Imphal. The festival, apart from being a cultural event that pitches the state as a world class tourism spot, aims to save the Sangai.
The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA) was set up in 1977 to revive polo so as to aid the pony's survival. "We started organising state-level matches while starting a census of the ponies," says Prof. C Priyoranjan, one of the five vice-presidents of the association. In 1991, the first international polo tournament was organised in which four international teams participated. The first two editions were a huge success, says Priyoranjan, but after the third, they went bankrupt. "The Manipuri pony doesn't have any market value but it shouldn't be seen in those terms. It is culturally and traditionally associated with Manipuris and we need to save it," says MHRPA president S Buddhachandra Singh.
Sangai, a deer endemic to Manipur, is a critically endangered species with only around 200 left in the wild. Reasons: Extensive hunting, poaching and habitat destruction
Manipuri pony, also endemic to Manipur, their number is fast declining with only around 400 left. Reasons: Habitat destruction, export and smuggling
After almost a decade trying to streamline the process, the association members now take pride that the tournament has become an annual sport event. This year alone, they have been able to host seven international polo teams - Mongolia, Thailand, France, Poland, South Africa, the US and the UK. "Tell me if there is any other polo event in the country where seven international teams participate?" S Buddhachandra Singh asked.
The first polo club - now defunct - in the country was established in Silchar, Assam, by a few British officers in 1859. In 1862, the second polo club was established in Calcutta. This year, Manipuri Polo celebrates the 150th year of Manipur polo team's first visit to the Calcutta Polo Club in 1864.
What makes this tournament a challenge and equally exciting for many is that all the players have to ride a Manipuri pony. "None of us is used to playing on these ponies. These are their horses, their kind of polo, so they have the advantage," says Akhil Sirohi, captain of the India A team, sent by the Indian Polo Association. John Eustace, captain of the South African team, says of his experience: "It took us a few games to get used to the polo played here. Internationally, polo horses are thoroughbreds and easy to manoeuvre. The fields are bigger and the game is much faster."
On the last day, the players from different countries dressed up in traditional attire - short kurta, dhoti and turban on the head - for an exhibition match of traditional Manipuri polo or Sagol Kangjei. The traditional polo is slightly more complicated game, and a delight to watch. The players ride the ponies barefooted without modern leather saddles or reins. There are no goal posts; a player scores simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Each side has seven players, as opposed to four in the international version. And interestingly, when a ball is thrown by the referee one can catch it and ride to the other side.
Manipur believes it is the place from where polo originated. And so do Iran, Mongolia and China. Traditional records mention Sagol Kangjei, a Manipuri game which gave birth to modern polo. It was the Britishers who first took interest in the local game, played by the ethnic majority Meiteis. English officers who were stationed in the region formalised the game and took it to other countries. The popularity of the game is credited to one Lt. Joseph Ford Sherer, also called the 'father of modern polo'.
"The Manipuri version of the game is quite similar to what we have in Mongolia, but with much stricter rules," says Ich Tenger Giercke, captain of the visiting Genghis Khan Polo & Riding Club from Mongolia. "The sport died out during the communist era. It is now catching up again."
The tournament had 23 local clubs pitching in and sharing resources or ponies. Around 150 Manipuri boys volunteered as groom-boys to look after the 90 selected ponies in a makeshift stable set up in the adjacent park. Unlike other places such as Jaipur or Delhi, where polo is for the elites, for Manipuris, it is the commoner's game. "Anyone can be a part of polo here. Defence officers who play in north India start playing the game only after they get into the service. But we have been riding these ponies since childhood," says S Bimol Singh, captain of the Manipuri, India B team.
Both Manipur Polo International and Sangai Festival attract a large number of visitors from all over the world. The cultural events and polo matches have grown in stature overshadowing the cause started in the name of the two animals. Both the events have been around for over a decade but the speed with which the number of Sangai and Manipuri ponies are declining should shake the government out of its slumber.