Saturday, October 6, 2001

The game of the glitterati
Aradhika Sekhon

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".


The 1st great Persian Empire under Darius 1 (550-486 BC) spread its culture to Egypt, Greece and North India, where the modern version of the game had its origins in Punjab in 1862. Certainly, the game was quite well-known at the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

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)

Polo in India today

POLO, in India is largely the prerogative of the Army. India sends a team at medium goal strength for an occasional tour of the UK and also acts as a host to teams from Britain and other countries. Officers of the 61st Cavalry play polo.

However, with corporate sponsorships and corporate houses fielding their own teams, the acceptability of this game outside the Army is increasing as well.

In Punjab, Patiala has a glorious history of polo. It was patronised by the royal family and played by Gen. Chanda Singh, Gen. Jaswant Singh and Gen. Jaginder Singh (the latter are the only two10-handicappers in India) among others.

Although Chandigarh hasn’t really been associated with the game, polo matches are scheduled to be held here from October 11-14 at the Railway Grounds. The teams expected to participate are the KVC, ASC, 61st Cavalry and The President’s Bodyguard. Among the civilian teams are Naveen Jindal and his team and Vikram Sodhi and his team. Several independent players are also expected to join up.

Gen. U.S. Sidhu, Chairman, Punjab Ex-servicemen Board and member of the Punjab Polo Organisation is the motivating factor behind the polo extravaganza. Horse shows, exhibition polo matches and a three-day cross-country match have already been held but these four-day matches are expected to draw crowds and evoke public interest. Captain of the 61st Cavalry team, Lt. Col. J.S. Virk, who was in town recently to inspect the polo ground, said he hoped these matches would revive interest in the game in this part of the country.


Horse tales

WHEN Alexander the Great took over from his father in 336 BC, it is said that the Emperor of Persia, Darius 111, sent him a polo stick and ball with a message that he should play such sports and leave war-mongering alone. Alexander thanked him for the gift and replied that for him they were symbolic. He was the stick, and the ball represented the earth, which he intended to conquer. If he excelled at polo as at war, he must have been a high goal player, for he soon defeated Darius.

lOmar Khayyam used polo to illustrate his philosophical points. Persian poet Nizami gave advice on how to live a full life, using polo as an allegory. "The horizon is the edge of your polo field, the earth is the ball in the curve of your polo stick. Until you are blotted out of existence as the dust, gallop and press on your horse as the ground is yours."

lFigures made on the T’ang dynasty tomb show members of the court playing the game. When a favourite and brilliant polo player was killed during a match, a 10th century Chinese Emperor had all the other players beheaded.

lThe Rajmata of Jaipur, Maharani Gayatri Devi, wanted to be the groom of the 22-year old polo demi-god, Maharaja Man Singh. "My dream was always that one day I’d grow up to be his groom….But I never became his groom, I became his wife"

lAmong the glitterati that have been bitten by the polo bug are Rudolf Valentino and Walt Disney who bought a string of ponies and recruited his employees to play. A wooden horse was brought into the studio so that they could practice their shots during breaks. Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, David Niven and Clark Gable, all helped to popularise the game.

lJilly Cooper, a best-selling English novelist, while researching a book asked one of the world’s top 10 goalers if he didn’t constantly fall in love with the pretty wives and daughters of the other polo players. "Yes", he replied, "but only for two hours at a time"