The history of the modern game of polo is inextricably intertwined with Manipur. For, this is the place where polo originated. It all began when two British officers, Lieutenant Joe Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart saw the Manipuri princes and noblemen playing Sagolkangjei, a game played with a wooden ball and stick on horseback in Cachar. They learned the game, made various modifications like introducing goalposts, limiting a team to four players, fouls, penalties etc. took the game first to Calcutta (Kolkata) and later to England. The game then travelled to the USA and eventually all across the Globe.
Manipur also boost of the oldest living polo ground in the world, the Mapal Kangjeibung, which has become a sort of a pilgrimage site for polo players from all over the world. Every year in the month of January, lady polo players and in November, polo players from as diverse a country as Argentina, Australia, Kenya, England, the USA, France, Thailand, Morocco, Uruguay among others, come here to take part in the Statehood Day Women’s International Tournament and the Manipur Polo International Tournament.
For these players, the experience of playing in Manipur has been quite unlike any other. The first-hand encounter with the Manipuri pony, the original polo mount, the place, its people, its culture, invariably left a unique impression on their minds. The North East Affairs talked to some polo players who participated in the just concluded 5th Statehood Day Women’s International Polo Tournament to know more about them, as also their experience of playing here, their encounter with the people and culture of this place.
Carolyn Stimmel, a member of the USA team, who hails from Texas USA, started playing polo when she was 19 after a friend introduced her to this prince of games. It’s been 30 years since and she is still playing the game very actively. She confided to this writer that she came to know about the history of this place as the origin of the modern game of polo only last year. She feels immensely happy to play in Mapal Kangjeibung and riding the Manipuri pony. Carolyn, besides being a polo player has also coached and trained many other polo players. She finds the Manipuri pony interesting and fun, small yet strong and hardy. Besides polo, Carolyn used to play field hockey, softball but her love for horses made her chose polo over other sports.
For the captain of Indian Polo Association, Monica Saxena, it is the third time here in Manipur. “Every time I come here, I learn something new”, said Monica recalling her experience. It was only after coming here in 2018, that “I realized the game which I considered as royal and which I am so fond of, actually originated from my own country, Manipur, India”.
Monica started riding at the age of four and took up the game of polo at the age of 27. She got the inspiration to play polo from her father who is an army officer as also from her husband. The three of them together joined the “Army Polo Riding Center Club”. Today she is a mother of two sons but that has not stopped her from playing the game. She was amazed to see how small the Manipuri ponies are. According to her, to the horses “it doesn’t matter whether the rider is rich and poor, man or woman, what really matters to them is how good a rider, he or she is”.
Farah Awadalla, the Egyptian captain was born in Cairo. This is the first time she is participating in an international tournament. She credits teammate Hanna Bahr for persuading and motivating her and other members of the team to come to Imphal for this tournament. Farah finds riding the Manipuri ponies fun as “they are so strong and feisty though small in size”. She finds them adorable and beautiful.
Talking about the place, she revealed that all the girls in her team found the Ima Market, a market run solely by women fascinating. “We are truly mesmerized with the culture, coming from a highly patriarchal society, to see the Manipuri women running the world here, left us awestruck.”
Alice Walsh of Great Britain is representing her country for the first time. She started riding at the young age of seven and was inspired to play polo from a lady who has trained hundreds of polo players. Alice has been playing polo for the last 15 years now. She finds the Manipuri ponies very tough and, “they have a lot of character”. She also feels they are quick to adapt to any eventuality. Besides, Polo Alice also plays hockey and works in a computer software company in London. Like Farah and her teammates, Alice also fell in love with the Ima Market and feels Imphal is a very safe place to visit.
Alice’s parting comment is a huge compliment for all of us in Manipur in the current times in the country we are living in. We hope may more Alices come to visit us as tourists, for business, academics, performing arts, for sports and various other areas of interest. We, on our part, should endeavour to make them feel safe and secure.