Breed Organization Information
The Manipuri Pony, Meitei Sagol, is a rare breed from the Southeast Himalayan state of Manipur in northeast India. The ponies are extremely agile and tough, and are also known for their stamina, speed, and intelligence.
Manipuri Ponies are thought to have descended from Mongolian Wild Horses crossed with Arabian and other pony stock. The Cheitharol Kumbaba, the court chronicle of Manipur, mentions Burmese ponies taken as the spoils of war by King Kyamba (1467-1508). It is also known that Mangal Sa, Mongolian Ponies, arrived in Manipur during the reign of King Pamheiba (1714-54). The British Government in India sent an Arabian stallion and eight mares to Manipur in 1859. Maharaja Churach, the first modern monarch of Manipur and an accomplished polo player, is recorded to have brought back two Arabians with him from boarding school. Australian Walers were also brought in by the British to be used as pack animals during World War II and possibly played a role in the breed’s development.
The Manipuri Pony resembles other ponies of the region such as the Burmese Pony and the Batak and Sumba Ponies from Indonesia, but the Manipuri is considered to be more powerful. It stands 10 to 13 hands high, and has an attractive wedge-shaped head with a straight profile, alert ears, and slightly epicanthic, wide set eyes. The muzzle is broad with nostrils that dilate. The neck is muscular and nicely shaped with a good length of rein, and thick mane. It is broad through the chest, with a compact body and well-sprung ribs. The shoulder is sloping which allows for a fast, long and low action. The quarters are muscular with the croup slightly sloping and the tail set and carried high. The Manipuri Pony may sometimes exhibit slightly concave and dish-shaped profiles. Dish-shaped profiles are generally considered a hallmark of the Arabian horse. The legs are in proportion to the body, and they have strong knees and hocks, with good density of bone, and very tough feet. The hooves of the Manipuri Pony are closed and very strong. Hence, shoeing is unknown in Manipur.
Traditionally, the Meiteis, the majority ethnic group of Manipur, recognize more than 70 different colors and patterns in the Manipuri Pony, including Kona (chestnut), Mangay (tamarind or dark chestnut), Mora (white), Karu (black), Kabrang (palomino or raw silk) and Kwaklei (blue vanda orchid, or white with black spots). The Meiteis feel that coloring and patterns determine the temperament and qualities of their ponies.
The Manipuri Ponies were excellent war ponies and were used by the cavalry of the kings of Manipur who were feared throughout Upper Burma. Astride swiftly charging Manipuri Ponies, Meitei horsemen flung arambai, equestrian darts that rained down on their enemies. Sacred to the Meiteis, the Manipuri Pony was never a pack, transport or work animal. Rather, ancient Meitei manuscripts, such as the Kangjeirol, the treatise on polo, depict the Manipuri Pony as a sacred animal and describe its utility as a fearless cavalry mount and a sport pony. According to the Kangjeirol, the deified ancestor King Kangba introduced sagol kangjei, the original polo game of the Meiteis. The king often raised a favored stallion to the official position of Sagol Yaisa, or the “first among ponies,” which was then accorded a special stable and a dedicated retinue of grooms. The court of the kings of Manipur appointed a “Keeper of Ponies,” called the Sagol Hanjaba, who inspected the ponies and punished owners for poor maintenance. This was seldom necessary, as almost every household in Manipur maintained ponies lovingly, as polo and ritual animals.
According to Meitei mythology, the ancestor of the Manipuri Pony is the sacred winged pony called Samadon Ayangba (“the swift first among beasts”). The mythological beast was created by the god Sanamahi to avenge the loss of his birthright to his younger brother, the god Pakhangba, the founding deity-king of the kingdom of Kangleipak (Manipur). With the help of the Nine Goddesses of Kangleipak, Pakhangba trapped Samadon Ayangba and cut off its mane and wings. And thus, according to Manipuri legend, the Manipuri Pony was created. It is considered a sacred mount to the god Marjing, one of the guardian deities of the four directions of the valley of the Meiteis. Worshippers who come to the sacred grove of Marjing in the village of Heingang, offer little pony statues at the smaller shrine to Samadon Ayangba.
In the performative civilization of Manipur, where history melds into myth and historical accounts are performed in song and dance, the Manipuri Pony features prominently in ballad and ritual. The story of Samadon Ayangba is sung by balladeers playing the pena, a stringed percussive instrument, during the Lai Haraoba, the annual and pre-eminent ritual festival of creation myths of the Meiteis. Also prominent is the use of polo in the dance performance of the maibi, the Meitei shaman priestess, in Lai Nupithiba, the “Wedding of the God,” an episode of the Lai Haraoba. The maibi’s performance, accompanied by balladeers, tell of the bachelor-god Khoriphaba, the son of Marjing, when he goes in search of his bride riding a pony and carrying a polo stick.
Although other equestrian sports exist in Manipur –- including horse racing which was introduced during the reign of King Mangyamba in the late 16th century, and Tape Chongba, a version of British steeplechase introduced as recently as the early 20th century by Maharaja Churachand -- it is with polo that the Manipuri Pony takes its pride of place.
The Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Court Chronicle of Manipur, and the Kangjeirol describe the first polo game as taking place in 48 A.D, listing the gods (or deified ancestors) and kings who played, seven to a side. They included the Deity-King Pakhangba who established the kingdom of Kangleipak, (Manipur), as well as Marjing the guardian deity served by the winged Samadon Ayangba. Although sagol kangjei today is played with seven players to a side, historically there were sometimes ten or more to a side. The game was played on a field with no goal posts. As a testament to the stamina of the Manipuri Pony, sagol kangjei had no chukkas, and was played with no time limits but rather with a previously agreed upon number of goals.
The traditional polo stick, called a kangjei, was made of cane, with a wooden mallet attached at a slightly more acute angle than the standard polo mallet of today. The ball, kangdrum, was made from bamboo rootstock. Players were allowed to carry the ball by hand, although this allowed opponents to attack the players physically. Only right-handed players were allowed, and there were rules such as sagol tupnaba (preventing riding across a player) to protect the polo mounts from getting hurt during the game. Colorful cloth pom-poms dangled at sensitive and vulnerable spots around the anatomy of the ponies in order to protect them. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their wooden saddles and donning shin guards. Players rode barefoot, toes curled over the stirrups.
From 1819 until 1826 Manipur was occupied by the northern Burmese kingdom of Awa. During this period in neighboring Silchar, Captain Robert Stewart and his fellow British officers, as well as civilian traders of the East India Company, first saw traditional Manipuri polo being played by the exiled Meitei princes. After learning the game from the Meiteis, the first British game of polo was played in 1853. In 1859, Major General Joseph Sherer, together with British Army officers and the traders and tea-planters, established the first British polo club, Silchar Kangjei Club, later renamed the Silchar Polo Club. In 1863, a team of Meitei riders and their Manipuri Ponies were taken to Calcutta by Major General Joseph Sherer, the “father of modern polo,” to play an exhibition game. Polo took the British by storm, and the 10th Hussars soon brought the game to England, where the first game on British soil was played in Hurlingham in 1869.
The original rules of the game in the West, as established by the Hurlingham Polo Association, introduced chukkas and goal posts, limited the players to four per side, and the height of mounts to 13 hands - the height of the Manipuri Pony. Over the years, the pony height limit was raised, especially after the game came to America. In 1919, the height limit was abolished, resulting in the Manipuri and other polo ponies being passed over in favor of larger horses. But traditional Manipuri rules allowing only right-handed players and right-of-way are still followed in polo today.
The Manipuri Pony is still used for polo in Manipur. Even today, the game is not a "rich man’s game” but is played by commoners, and many villages have polo fields. The main tournaments are still held on the three traditional polo grounds built by the kings of Manipur’s Ningthouja dynasty in 33 CE. These consist of the Manung Kangjeibung (inner polo ground), within the ramparts of the Kangla Fort, where only royalty and noblemen were allowed to play. This may be the world’s oldest polo ground. Public games are also held at the Mapan Kangjeibung (outer polo ground), outside the western gate of Kangla Fort. Weekly polo games called Hapta Kangjei are also played on a polo ground outside the present-day palace.
Manipur holds three state-level tournaments every year with prized trophies awarded such as the Governor’s Cup and the Hazari Cup. These are organized by the All Manipur Polo Association, the oldest polo association in the state, and the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association.
With the merger of Manipur into the Indian Union in 1949, patronage for the Manipuri Pony dropped precipitously. Today they are an endangered species with an estimated population of fewer than 500. Unfortunately their rare and endangered status is not adequately recognized by local leaders and local citizens. In addition, other breeds have been introduced into Manipur potentially leading to crossbreeding. With increased urban development in the late 20th century, the traditional pastures have disappeared, leaving many ponies to wander the streets, foraging in the city trash.
While there are concerned citizens and pony lovers who have become aware of the need to preserve the Manipuri Pony, the unstable political situation in this conflict-ridden border state has distracted leaders from the plight of the pony whose days may be numbered. At present, there is no organization aggressively addressing the dire status of these tough and historically significant ponies.
Today, the dwindling populations of Manipuri Ponies are still used for polo, exhibition arambai, racing, and to a limited extent, by the Indian military for transport.