Now played across the globe, Polo had its origin in India
Polo featured in four Olympiads between 1900 and 1936, when the event was discontinued. Notably, no Indian polo team ever competed in the Olympic Games.
In 1859, when Lt. Joseph Sherer, a British military officer posted in colonized India, saw turban-wearing and dhoti-clad local men from the northeast Indian state of Manipur playing a game called sagol kanjai, he was fascinated. In sagol kangjei, also known as pulu, meaning “ball” or “ballgame,” players riding ponies chased a ball and hit it with a stick to score a goal. Sherer took a liking to the game, as did other British soldiers in Silchar, in modern-day Assam state, where they had seen the Manipuri players. Sherer told his colleague, Capt. Robert Stewart, “We must learn the game.” And that’s how a local sport of Manipur, a state the size of New Jersey, became a global juggernaut, and pulu became polo.
Today, the sport is played in at least 70 countries. It featured in four Olympiads between 1900 and 1936, when the event was discontinued. Notably, no Indian polo team ever competed in the Olympic Games. But the sport as we know it may never have come about had Sherer not been assigned to Manipur during his tenure in India.
Sherer and Stewart formed the Silchar Kangjai Club in 1859. But when Sherer moved to Kolkata, then known as Calcutta and the capital of British India, he couldn’t stop thinking about the game. He and Stewart collaborated on turning sagol kangjei into a “proper sport” — i.e., an Anglicized version of what they had seen. So, in 1860, they established the Calcutta Polo Club, the world’s first organization for the (sort of) brand-new sport. In the modified version of sagol kangjei, there were four men per team as opposed to seven, and goal posts were added to the field.
“Modern polo is a slightly modified version of our sagol kangjei,” says Ranjit Singh Moirangthem, a retired Indian army lieutenant colonel and vice president of the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association. But rather than rejecting the changes to its homegrown game, Manipur takes pride in polo.
Every year in late November, the association organizes an international polo tournament in which local teams compete against those from other nations. The U.S., U.K., Germany and Morocco all participate. The tournament doesn’t just bring different teams together, though — it also pits different styles of the sport against each other. Manipur’s polo team retains some of the characteristics of the traditional sport. For instance, Manipuri polo players (the team is labeled India B) ride indigenous ponies that are just 11 or 12 hands high, or less than 52 inches tall, while players from the rest of India (known as India A) and from other countries ride horses that are more than 15 hands high. Manipuri ponies are known for both toughness and agility, and are traditionally unshod.
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