|Saturday, October 6, 2001||
TO watch polo is to witness an elemental excitement that is rarely seen in any other sport. Whatever the intricacies of the rules, a first-time spectator cannot but be thrilled at the sights and sounds of two teams engaged in intimate combat.
In polo one can see the love and trust between the horse and the rider. One serves the other. This is a game for individual stars and brilliant horses, but it is also a team game which requires pace and technique. The skills of horsemanship, hand-eye co-ordination and courage are highly prized in this game.
Polo combines the speed of the racetrack, the drama of tennis, the team spirit of cricket and the intellectual challenge of chess.
This game probably originated in Persia, now Iran, about 4000 years ago. Written accounts tell of polo being played about 600 years before the birth of Christ. In India the game has been played for over 2000 years. When Lt. Joseph Sherer, ‘the father of English polo’, came across polo being played by local tribesmen in Manipur, he exclaimed, " we must learn this game"
The Manipuris called their game by two names, kanjaibazee and pulu (meaning wooden ball). The present name of the game originated from pulu.
Even today some
primitive versions of the game are played in such places as Japan,
Russia and Turkey. Fierce mounted melees in the game of da-kyu
(spoon polo) in Japan, khis-kouhou, the bridal chase of Russian
steppes, and djerid, the war-like javelin game of Turkey are some
of the variants of polo. A rough form of action polo is played in an
annual tournament at Gilgat in North Pakistan. In this extreme test of
bravery and horsemanship, deaths are frequently recorded. The tradition
of the game in this place is a proud one and it is stated that "the
game of polo was born in Central Asia, spent its childhood in Iran and
attained maturity in the northern areas".
As empires spread, so did the game and it was played throughout Asia Minor, China and the Indian subcontinent. Persians, Arabs, Chinese and the Moguls all enjoyed polo. In addition to providing recreation to the ruling classes, it also encouraged good horsemanship amongst the warrior classes.
Many historical figures have, over the centuries, been associated with the game. Qutub-ud-din Aibak died when, after a fall during a game of polo, he was impaled on the ornate horn of his saddle. Then there are Genghis Khan, whose men learned the game as they swept through Asia Minor and Timur, who is said to have ordered his cavalry to play with the heads of his enemies. Babur, in the 15th century, popularised polo in India, and Akbar, whose vast polo stables can still be seen near Agra, were also associated with the game.
In the Indian subcontinent polo was played by Mogul emperors till the end of the 16th century as a national sport. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, its popularity dropped. Tibetans probably picked up the game from the Chinese and it was from there that the Manipuris adopted polo. Europeans discovered the sport when they came to the area to plant tea in the early 1850s.
Soon after the mutiny in 1857, Lt. Joseph Sherer, a subaltern in the Indian army, was posted in Assam as the assistant superintendent of the district. Taken by the game, he, along with seven tea planters, formed the first club of the modern version of the game, The Silcher Polo Club. Later he visited Calcutta and set up the Calcutta Polo Club in 1863, which is the oldest club still in existence.
By 1865, the game had taken root in Bengal and by 1870 it had spread throughout British India. Soon reports of the "new" game began to appear in the British press. In 1869, an officer of the 10th Hussars in England initiated an afternoon sport with his fellow officers. Mounted on their horses and with walking sticks and a billiard ball, they attempted to play "hockey on horseback". Soon tournaments became a regular feature of army life. Following the lead of the army, fashionable people began to play polo.
Polo reached Australia in 1876 and South Africa in 1875. In South America, the game arrived with the British and was first played in 1875. The local cattle ranchers saw the possibilities of the game and set up clubs in and around Buenos Aires. In 1867, a newspaper publisher, James Gorden Bennet, organised the first indoor polo game in Dickle’s Academy in New York. Polo was coming of age, and in 1890, the future U.S President, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to his friend "I tell you, a corpulent, middle aged, literary man finds a stiff polo match rather good exercise."
The two decades between the World Wars were the golden years of the game. The Roaring Twenties saw top players attaining the status of stars. Among these players in Britain was the Rao Raja Hanut Singh of Jodhpur. Son of a polo player, he played to a handicap of 9 goals in 1919. Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, captain of the legendary Jaipur team, The Fearsome Foursome, swept every high-goal tournament on the English circuit, including the Coronation Cup and the Hurlington Open in 1933.
By the time World War II broke out, the golden age of the game was over although in India, rajas still maintained teams with many ponies. Since World War II, there had been a steady growth in the popularity of the game. The game is, at present, more popular than it has been at any time since its golden period. One thing is certain; polo has an honorable past and a glittering future.
(Inputs and information from Pimm’s Book of Polo)