On the trail of Polo and Pony

Lourembam Ibetombi Devi *

Manipuri Pony: A young boy tends to a Manipuri Pony used during the 24th Governor's Cup Invitation Polo Tournament and 13th Governor's Cup Women's Polo Tournament 2014 at Pologround(Mapal Kangjeibung) on March 4 2014
Manipuri Pony: A young boy tends to a Manipuri Pony used during the 24th Governor's Cup Invitation Polo Tournament and 13th Governor's Cup Women's Polo Tournament 2014 at Mapal Kangjeibung on March 4 2014 :: Pix - Ashok Ningthoujam

I have been on the trail of Polo and Manipuri Pony for some time. I had a longing to pay tributes to the people who were my teachers. I wanted to see some of the masters of the game, the teachers who taught me various techniques of riding the wonderful beast but I knew of course that I would not see many of them, because, I am looking for them after a gap of thirty long years. Naturally, almost all of them have passed away. I hoped to see at least one or two of them, but none were surviving.

I still remember that encouragement of the teachers to encourage me, because in mid seventies, a young girl like me riding horse was not that common, so not readily accepted by some sections of the society. I wanted to say thank you to my teachers, to all of them. Riding horse gave me so much of self esteem and confidence, and recognition.

You know, it is said that the horse know its rider, if the rider is not confident or does not know the techniques, the horse shall instantly notice it and not accept the rider and throw him down. One has to ride with confidence. This confidence they instilled in me, I was picked up to be the first rider among many girls who assembled. The first lesson was given in the ground towards southern gate of RIMS. I owe a lot to these masters of the game of yesteryears.

We all know that we have a very old folklore concerning the Manipuri Pony, an absorbingly wonderful folk tale starting from Samaton Ayangba. Now, recognising the Manipuri Pony as a different genetic stock and Polo as a gift from Manipur to the international community has placed a lot of importance on this animal. This recognition is no wonder; we have well established way of playing polo.

We also have an advanced technique of capturing the horses from wild or semi or quasi wild conditions (from places like Sajik Tampak) and techniques of training them which have evolved over a period of thousands of years. The Hunnarang we use here is different from lassoing, the special reed (yengdou) and rope used here for such hunnarang is not used anywhere in the world.

Shri Shyamkishore Singh is son of one of my teachers, Ojha Keirakpam Babu Singh of Thoubal Okram is an expert in using the hunnarang and he used to tell how he used to camouflage the yengdou with fodder grasses so that the horses are not frightened. The horses did not fully forget the owners, so capturing them again is not that tough like catching from fully wild conditions.

The language and steps we teach the horses (Machat-Mawahei) are completely different from the ones adopted in other parts of the country and the world. Very unfortunately, they are not properly documented and were being passed on from one generation to the other orally. These aspect also need to be promoted along with the ponies, they are also our own technique, arts associated with pony. For all these, we need the masters of the game.

So, for the pony, for preserving its famous fighting instinct and adequate gene base and healthy condition, we may need more sanctuaries with more leg and grazing space. We need space for keeping a healthy carrying capacity. We may have more for other districts than the currently proposed one. In the past, for horse races at Hafta Kangjeibung (till late 70s), horses were brought from very far off places, still scope for the same has to be maintained to encourage people who have been taking care of the ponies so long.

I will be really happy if all the polo grounds (Hafta Kangjeibung, Mapal Kangjeibung and Manung Kangjeibung) are restored for polo for their historic significance. We have more than 33 polo clubs in the state coming from various parts of the state. We need to promote pony in these localities too.

One fact that comes up during my visits to the places famous for horses was that now we have very few polo grounds of adequate size. At one stage, during the heydays of polo (during Maharaja's days), we had many polo grounds, one may go anywhere, and one will find a Polo ground (Kangjeibung). We had as many as 122 polo grounds in the state. The prevalence of the polo grounds and adjoining grazing grounds as many as the number of polo grounds was one of the factors which helped the game of polo to flourish.

The polo grounds are all gone, converted in to paddy field along with the associated wetlands which were the grazing grounds of the horses. We know how many are left now. As I told you earlier, the Manipuri pony is raised in semi or quasi wild condition and need a large ground; these large wetlands were good as their habitat. So, rearing pony has become really tough now.

According to late Ojha Thanil, in Darjeeling, even four people are deployed for taking care of a horse(of course the good horse). That much care and manicuring shall be tough for Manipuri Polo players due to their financial conditions. This could be one of the reasons for downslide of the game of polo and other equestrian games. The Lamphelpat is not in any condition to accommodate any horse. The Yaralpat, Akampat, Sangaipat, Loushipat, Ngangoupat, Sanapat are all gone. Others like Waithoupat, Shamushang (Mayang Imphal) etc. are on the decline.

That is why the ponies are all seen on the roads. Of late, those people who were keeping personal ponies have all sold their ponies due to this problem. I have not touched upon our religious rituals associating the ponies with our culture. But it is a fact that the horses and polo sticks are used in Lai-Haraoba of Umang Lais and so on because, our culture also had the element of horse in its evolution stage for thousands of years.

The Samaton Ayangba raiding crops of people before it was fully tamed was of a great possibility because when civilisation started and cultivation for static agriculture started at the dawn of civilisation, the ponies might have not been fully tamed and they raided crops and from these incidences our folklores might have evolved.

Sadly, those lasts of the masters of the game are gone. In my last article on pony and polo last year, I was desperately hoping that at least one or two of them survive till date. That is not the case as it turns out to be. But one thing I found out was, these masters are so immensely popular, you ask for them at a distance of five kilometres away from his home, people could tell the exact location of their houses, even after twenty years of their death.

When you mention about them to their grandchildren and children, their faces brightens with reverence. The people of the locality hold them in extreme esteem. Why not, polo is the toughest game of all and most martial, especially the Pana Style of Polo is very tough. It is regarded as the royal game. These masters were tough riders and real artists of the game. Tougher the beast better is the rider required and better is the game produced.

I know my Ojhas well; they were the best in the field, among the best riders and best polo players in the world. I was told that, they were asking for me till the last, I really missed them. Had they knew that I am on their trail now, they could have been really happy.

On how much they love their beasts and how dedicated they are is beyond words to express. As a young girl, I was keen on getting the best horse to ride. We all were waiting for the special horses that they would bring to arrive. The Oinam Sawomung horses have come, somebody would shout. We all ran out to greet them; food was already cooked for the Ojhas by the volunteers (aunts and sisters were all involved). Later, somebody would inform us that Leimapokpam and Thiyam Konjil horses also have come.

There were many ponies, Karu, Sanabi, Moraa, Mangge, Leiphol, Natrang, and all. We were so excited. I even joined in feeding the horse and manicuring the one allotted to me.

The Karu Arangba was the name of the horse given to me; it was a fine horse indeed, a beautiful one and commanding in gesture. I was very fond of this horse. The masters who would bring the horses would not come on horseback; they would come on bicycles, leading the horses by the reigns, some may come on horseback but would come slowly so that the animal is not tired.

The bond between man and beast is so tight. They are so attuned with the movements and thinkings of each other, “you should sit on the horse as if you are sitting cross legged (khonggrai chanba) for your dinner, you should be that comfortable on the horse for being a good polo player” I remember the words of Ojha Chaoyaima of Oinam Sawombung.

In search of those masters of polo, I had to travel a lot to the various localities in Thoubal, Bishnupur and Imphal West. I could see those polo grounds converted in to paddy fields with a lot of pain. I also could see the financial position of those polo players and the legacy they left behind.

The pride of a polo player could still be seen in the nature of traditional houses and lawns (shumang) they maintained inspite of extreme financial hardships. While going to the nook and corners of the state, I could see the rural Manipur, the backbone of our famous well laid out culture and rituals, in terms of economic activity, social activity, cultural activities and pastimes. It was a discovery of Manipur for me. I enjoyed it and hope to continue my journey on the trails of Manipuri pony and polo.

* Lourembam Ibetombi Devi wrote this article for The Sangai Expresss
The writer is an Associate Professor in Physical Education, the Standard College and may be contacted at This article was posted on April 24, 2014.

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