POLO DIARY FROM MANIPUR
(L.Somi Roy and Angeline Chauhan)
“The evolution and development of Polo is the work of able men who have risen up from time to time in the history of the game.”
Jodhpur Polo has been keeping abreast of the sweeping changes that Polo in the North East has experienced over the past couple of years and we have been covering the polo scene in Manipur extensively over the past few issues of the Magazine. It is important to note that China, Middle East’s Iran (erstwhile Persia), Mongolia, Tibet and Pakistan all have a stake in the claims of being the birthplace of Polo. However, most popular accounts of sporting heritage and history point towards Manipur, where the Sport was traditionally known as Sagol Kangei. Discovered by the British whose presence was marked by officers posted in the State, the Sport won their favour and fervour as well as that of the tea planters, in no time!
Although it is not common to play polo throughout the year in Manipur due to its interwoven relevance with the ancient Manipuris and rituals, it is however played from periods other than June to July (Laicheppa) or September to October (Lai Lenghkhatpa). This obviously implies that the viewers have a good eight months to enjoy polo both domestic as well as international.
Jodhpur Polo brings you an in depth peek into this beautiful game in the picturesque locales of Manipur through the eyes of L. Somi Roy, who is the Principal of Huntre! Equine. He works in cultural conservation and is also a writer and translator.
POLO YATRA – USHERING IN A RENAISSANCE IN WOMEN’S POLO
For Polo Yatra, the international tournament project of Huntré! Equine, women’s polo and the wellbeing of the endangered Manipuri Polo Pony- are top priorities. Beginning 2013, we set out to strategize a policy for both the sport as well as the pony. The “Polo Yatra” concept provided us a strong foothold, and the organic take-away from the first two Polo Yatras was that the long- term mission of Huntré! Equine would be to support, develop and promote women’s polo in India.
The little mountain State of Manipur, the birthplace of modern polo, accounts for about one third of the 300 polo players in India and about three-fourths of the 40 women polo players in the whole of India. Distinctively and uniquely, here it is not the Sport of Kings, though Manipur’s monarchs avidly played polo during the course of the kingdom’s history, but the Sport of the People. Egalitarian, village-based, popular, Manipuri women’s polo rests on the fabled power of its confident, gifted, and outspoken women. Huntré! Equine would undertake to field a women’s- only tournament as a strategic development for Indian women’s polo. And so was born the Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament in 2016, the first and only annual women’s polo tournament in India.
Huntré! Equine decided to extend help to the State’s other polo association, the older, struggling All Manipur Polo Association (AMPA), in its mission to support polo in Manipur. It handed it the task of organizing the tournament in 2016 for the very 1st Manipur Statehood Women’s Polo Tournament to be played at Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest extant polo ground in the world.
That year, Manipur fielded three teams for a mixed tournament of four teams. Each was led by one of the American players . Then it was off to Jaipur where the Indian contingent played with their American counterparts in an exhibition game we called Cowgirls v Gopis. It took Jaipur’s polo community by storm before the finals of the Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Cup!
Since then, the result has been five annual women’s international polo tournaments in Manipur from 2016 till 2020. In 2017, BSE came on to sponsor the winners’ cup. The tournament has grown to accumulate eight competing teams from USA, Argentina, Great Britain, Australia, Kenya, Egypt, the Indian Polo Association (IPA), and host Manipur.
Polo Yatra really took a step up in 2018 when Incredible India! under KJ Alphons of the Ministry of Tourism stepped in to join Manipur Tourism and the USPA in supporting the tournament. In 2019, Team Argentina, making their debut in the 4th Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament, rode gallantly to upstage Team USA. The 5th Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament in 2020 was recognized as the official closing event of Polo150, the global commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of polo in England. Only nine months in existence, Team Egypt made its first international appearance to join Teams USA, Great Britain, Argentina, IPA and Manipur. Appropriately enough for an official Polo150 event, as , it was Team Great Britain that rode off with the Manipur Statehood Day Polo BSE Cup scoring five goals to the USA’s two.
JAIPUR AND BEYOND!
When Steve Armour brought Team USPA Women to Manipur in 2016, I reached out to glorious Jaipur – its Princess Diya Kumari pointing out to me charmingly, “Many places play polo, but Jaipur plays only polo”.
The Jaipur connection grew with Polo Yatra 2017, when HH Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur organized a game at the impressive polo ground of Vikram Singh Rathore in Mundota for Team USPA Women. From there, we moved southward, to Hyderabad, the hi-tech city of Google and the Nizam of yore. The young and sleek Nasr Polo of Hyderabad was the host of India’s first international arena women’s polo. In 2019 sponsor USPA Global came on to outfit all the teams and tournament crew and after Imphal, Polo Yatra introduced women’s polo in Mumbai where the women’s team from the USPA made its debut..
The first thought for Huntre! Equine is to revitalize what brought us into being: the preservation of the Manipuri Pony. This conservation mission has underscored everything that we have done with Polo Yatra. The second is to re-emphasize the local – the prowess of the rural polo players of Manipur, both men and women and see where we have and can continue to give our value- added services. The third is the use of media and culture, a mainstay of our activities from the very beginning that has linked the local to the global.
PRESERVATION OF THE PONY:
The preservation of the Manipuri Pony, highly endangered at about only 500, was the spark and lodestar of Huntré! ! Equine’s activities in Manipur including our Polo Yatra. Using the help of Huntré! Equine PartnerEd Armstrong and the USPA, we leveraged the establishment of a 200-acre pony preserve in 2013 at Heingang Village at the foot of the pony shrine of Manipur. We led the campaign that led to the official declaration of the animal as an Endangered Breed, also in 2013. We spearheaded the adoption of a state pony policy in 2016. We initiated an academic conference with the participation of international women players was held at Manipur University. Key to the discussion at the conference was the recognition of the plight of Manipuri Pony by the international women players. So far, the winners from Argentina, Great Britain, and the USA have donated their prize money to Huntré! Equine for the welfare of the Manipuri Pony. While the state develops local tourism at the Heingang preserve, Huntré! Equine will use this and other resources in a community-based pony preservation yoked to rural polo in Kumbi Village, an hour southwest of Imphal that we started in January 2020.
DEVELOPING POLO PROWESS
When Team USPA came to play at the Manipur International Polo Tournament organized by the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association to Manipur in November 2013, it was the first international team that came with a researched – an informed guesstimate really – handicap, of 9 goals. As the tournament developed over the past five years, Huntré! ‘s Ed Armstrong thought the natural next step was to play the event along the lines of the international women’s handicap system. Not having any ratings and with teams coming with vastly different polo playing skills has been an obstacle in producing a fair and handicapped tournament. USA’s Pamela Flanagan was asked to collect recommendations from the other international teams as to what the Manipur team along other emerging teams from the IPA should be rated. Collecting that data, Ed was able to aggregate the recommendations from the teams and coaches of USA, Great Britain and Argentina. The handicap ratings for each of the players of the three teams not currently rated are based on observations during the games of the 2020 tournament. These ratings are for Team Manipur only, recommended for adoption locally with Team Captain
POLO REVIVAL IN THE COUNTRYSIDE:
Rural polo is the latest in our work to fill what we saw as developmental blank spots in Manipuri polo. In the effort to help save the Manipuri Pony, we came up with the concept of the revival and refocussing onvillage polo. Many of the villages surrounding Imphal had historically played polo, had their own fields and local players. This died out in the 70’s for a lakeside village called Kumbi. The villagers were approached with the idea of restarting polo. Huntré!’s Ed Armstrong conducted a village clinic over two days in January 2020. The village was able to construct two wooden training horses with pictures and drawings provided by Armstrong, so that they can continue to use to learn the basics of swinging the mallet and hitting the ball.
The village project will bring in the concept of equine welfare to rural polo and to help preserve Manipuri Ponies in this lakeside village, and in return, villagers are charged with the care and feeding of the animals. Creating these jobs will increase the demand for ponies and encourage proper care and breeding programs that will help sustain the breed.
MEDIA AND CULTURE
Our international yatra began when Bill Cooke, a fellow museum curator and the director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I met in Lexington and we decided to add the Manipuri polo and pony as a permanent exhibit at the museum. Thanks to Governor Gurbachan Jagat of Manipur, a set of authentic polo costumes and gear was donated to the museum that has resulted in the permanent exhibit on polo from Manipur to the US seen today in The Horse in Sports section of the museum in Lexington. The Manipuri Pony was added in its Breeds of the World by the museum. That was in 2012.
That first foray into conservation and global framing has been an accompanying theme that has used film and video as strategic tool. Huntré! Equine brought on partner Roopa Barua to document the games at our first Polo Yatra in 2016. Film teams from national and regional television have covered the tournaments since and the Australians made a fun music fanvid. During our covid-19 national lockdown, Huntré! ! Equine continues to work with the Global Polo Network of USPA Global out of Florida to put our media online for a global audience.
Over the last five years Polo Yatra has presented 80 women polo players from eight countries on six continents. Polo Yatra and Huntré! ! Equine continue to work, despite the odds, to promote and develop International Polo for Women in Manipur, and in three metropolitan cities across India. Our journey well begun is only half done.