“The museum has recently acquired a collection of traditional Manipuri polo artifacts. Pictured here is the traditional clothing of a Manipuri polo player. It consists of a kokyet (turban), phurit (shirt), pheijom (leggings), and khongyam (shin guards). The clothing is made from silk and the shinguards are made from water buffalo hide.
Polo originated in the state of Manipur in northeastern India almost 2000 years ago. During the period of British colonialism in the 19th century, British military officers discovered the game and exported it to the west. The museum is currently developing an exhibit exploring the history of polo in Manipur.”
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. Ten years later, a team of Meitei riders and their Manipuri Ponies were taken to Calcutta by Capt. 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.
Read more about the Manipuri Pony.