At Peril, Ponies in the land of polo


At the end of 7th Century AD, an intriguing game was born in medieval Manipur after the local kings started patronising a leisurely activity of its elite cavalry, known as Sagolkangjei  meaning Horsemounted Hockey which later became the modern Polo. For several centuries, Polo in Manipur was a form of public exhibition to assert a clan's supremacy in cavalry warfare which was the most effective and predominant tactic of warfare. In fact, in the chronicles of the great Shan Empire extending most parts of Southeast Asia and parts of China, the only records of Manipur was about the small bands of riders from Manipur called the Arambais that terrorised upper Burma for centuries. In the middle of 18th Century, Maharaj Garibniwaz sacked Sagaing and nearly conquered Mandalay with just 400 cavalry soldiers. In 2006, the British Library online release of original records and individual accounts from as early as 1804 AD, revealed the British obsession with the Manipuri Sagolkangjei and its adoption as a training exercise for its cavalry army after witnessing the game. The revelation also finally settled the prolonged debate of the Polo's place of origin and thus, Manipur became its official birthplace. Since then, Manipur has been celebrating and the State Government has not stopped bragging. Chief Minister Okram Ibobi took pride in the State's rich sporting culture and its gift of polo to the world as often as he can in many national and international gatherings. The baby-faced CM has repeatedly renewed the government's commitment to preserve the traditional heritage of Sagolkangjei from which modern polo was derived. Unfortunately, the living heritage and the pivotal legacy of the ancient polo i.e. the Manipuri Pony is already nearing extinction with just less than 250 of them still in survival. Following is a brief account of these magnificent creatures whose poise and maverick moves once enchanted the entire world and later became an obsession which also brought about its downfall.

Once revered by the locals as sacred creatures, the Manipuri pony or the  mid-sized ponies is among the 5 Indian Equinne breed born from crossbreeding Tibetan pony with the Arabian horse giving it a sturdy and sure-footed posture. In fact, the Manipuri pony was solely responsible for the worldwide appeal for polo for its ability to perform difficult manoeuvres while speeding, a rare feat inherited from generations of experience in countless battles. Also known as India Equus parapellus, they are generally 112-132 cm high with good shoulders, short back, well-developed quarters, strong limbs, and high-set tail. They possess high intelligence, are tough and have exceptional endurance making the ponies a popular and highly desired battle horse until it was introduced as the ride of the ancient Polo around 7th Century AD. Specifically bred for war, the Manipuri pony possess rare combination of strength and stamina along with extreme agility to perform spectacular maverick moves making it as lethal as its riders. According to legend, the Manipuri pony was created when its ancestor, a sacred winged mythological beast called Samadon Ayangba, had its mane and wings cut off. The sacredness of the breed meant it was never used as a transport or work animal, but solely as a fearless cavalry mount and by the 12th Century as a polo pony.

Considered one of the oldest team sports in history, the exact origin of polo is unknown, but it's believed that it was first played several thousands of years ago by competing nomadic tribes in Central Asia. These tribes domesticated wild horses and migrated to Persia by mastering warfare on horseback, a skill trained by practicing their manoeuvres playing sports like polo. However, according to historical records of British officials and some other facts collected by the British Library, the modern polo is actually a reinvention of Sagolkangjei.  During the 11th and 12th Century AD, the dominant Ningthoujas began hosting regular matches showcasing the combat skills of their own Arambai militia and their war ponies. During this initial development of polo as a game, it was these maverick moves from the local ponies that became the major attraction of the sport for the local populace. Although polo ponies are not recognised as a distinct breed, they are truly unique horses known for their heart, speed and stamina. During a match, the horses' tails are tied up and their mane totally shaved to prevent interference with the mallet or reins, giving them similar features. A good polo pony must be able to stop and turn on a whim, neck rein with minimal pressure, work well from leg cues as well as hold a gait without bucking or shying, and be able to work up close around other horses. In the course of a match, the average pace is more than 50 km per hour – which is why horses are changed after each seven-minute period or "chukka". Needless to say, a horse must be well trained for riding before being introduced to polo, and it takes an average of six months to two years to produce a pony that loves to play the sport. This is why good polo ponies are very valuable and the polo players are so attached to these magnificent athletes, whose quality can easily decide the outcome of a match.

In this regard, the stamina of the Manipuri Equine is exceptional as they were used for the whole duration of the Manipuri version. American journalist and polo enthusiast, Mary Craee claimed that the Western obsession with the game came about after its discovery by British tea planters in the early 1800s. When British Regent Col. Pemberton also stumbled upon the rare display of stamina and agility from the indigenous pony. British army officials relished the ponies that the locals were playing on and before the Anglo-Manipuri War in 1889, the British extensively ordered ponies from Manipur for military campaigns in Europe and Central Asia. Somewhere during the 1850s, the British Cavalry formalised and popularised as the modern Polo. Shortly after the sport was introduced to both England and the United States. Used for cavalry training, the game was soon played from Constantinople to Japan as mounted armies swept across these parts of the world, conquering and reconquering. Polo was adopted everywhere as a noble pastime by emperors, sultans, and caliphs of ancient Persia, and thereby became known as "the game of kings". Sadly for the original polo equine this was also a period that brought unprecedented lost as large numbers of the indigenous ponies were seized and shipped in battlefields across the world during WWI and WW II.

Meanwhile, when Manipur became a part of the Indian Union in 1949, the new government abolished the Royal patronage of the game of Sagolkangjei by disbanding the Manipur State Polo Committee founded by Maharaj Buddhachandra in 1947. The royal stable housing the indigenous ponies were seized and the players were prohibited from entering the Mapal Kangjeibung also known as the Imphal Pologround – the venue of the 1st official Polo match in 1569. Recalling the most severe blow to the ancient polo heritage and the local ponies, L Memcha Devi recalled, "Following a day after the decree the local players were shocked to find the Mapal Kangjeibung sealed off with barb wires. Later, these players were forced to leave their horses to the CO of the 1st Manipur Rifle. This was the saddest event for both the local ponies and also the traditional polo". It was under this situation that the Manipur State Polo Committee was founded in 1955 under the disguise of a subsidiary branch of the Indian Polo Association in 1967. Following relentless efforts from the committee, the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association was formed by merging the Manipur Polo Club and Manipur State Polo Committee in the late 70s. As part of its initial effort the N Hazari Polo Tournament was founded by former President of MHRPA – N Tombi Singh in 1984 in strict abidance of the traditional Sagolkangjei rule. This annual tourney is run be a trust with an initial trust fund of just Rs. 3 lakhs with the principal aim to promote the Manipuri polo version and thus revived the people's affection towards the dwindling Manipuri Ponies.

However, one look at the deplorable condition in which the oldest Polo tournament held in January this year tells a different reality about the State Government's repeated promise to preserve and protect the dying population of Manipuri pony. These statements from the chief office bearers seem nothing but a lie. According to RK Diana, grand daughter of founder late N Tombi Singh, the tournament's future is bleak as the trust amount of Rs. 3 lakhs created in 1978 is becoming impossible to hold a state level tournament. Diana further laments the State Government's apathy to her earnest appeal for revising the trust fund of Rs 3. lakhs to fit the current inflation in economy and also in the future. Here, It is noteworthy that Ibobi's Government has pumped in crores of rupees in the past three months to organise two international polo tournament viz. The Governors Polo Trophy in November 21 to 29 and then in January, the Statehood Polo trophy. Even as the State Government has yet to draft a conclusive protection policy – a local pony was found dead during the Governors Trophy in November 2015. It was alleged that the negligence and ignorance of the concerned State Department and staff were responsible for the loss of another rare pony.

In the meantime, the fate of the Manipuri ponies is still deteriorating and even the decade-old heritage park of MHRPA has not yielded any consolation as the number of these living heritage and the rightful guardians of the polo game is further reduced to less than 250 from the approximate 900 at the time of the launching of the heritage project. According to local expert, the remaining Manipuri ponies could be altogether extinct in the next 15 years if the current trend persists.m

For centuries, the horse-mounted Arambai consolidated the sovereign status of the Ningthoujas in Manipur and nearby areas including the Kabaw Valley in Upper Burma. Until the end of the Anglo – Manipuri War in 1891, the King's personal militia known as the Arambai militia continued to reign terror in the nearby regions including Upper Burma. Prominent among the factors for Arambai unit's combative superiority was the Manipuri Ponies which were revered as sacred to the people. Even today, these ponies are employed as part of the tradition in Manipur's oldest cultural festivals known as Laiharaoba events. These elite cavalry soldiers have found themselves in many historical records of the great Shan Empire of Southeast Asia, the  Chronicle of Kamrup and later the British recorded many accounts of the Arambai unit. They are also mentioned in the personal journals of visitors like Sir Johnstone, TC Hudson and American explorer Thomas Livingstone India's 1st Army Chief – Field Marshal Manickshaw who headed the Gurkha Regiment while rating the Khongjom Battle of 1891 as the toughest battle that the regiment has ever faced, recalled the extraordinary skills and ferocity of the Manipuri Arambais. During his address on the Golden Jubilee of the Gurkha Army, the former British Army General termed that the 1891 battle in Manipur was more fearsome than the battles of WW II where his Regiment garnered several Victoria Cross – the highest gallantry Medal of the British Royal Army.

(by R.K. Suresh)

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The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today