The Manipur Cabinet this week finally approved the draft Manipuri Pony Conservation and Development Policy to protect the Manipuri pony which is endangered and is found only in the state of Manipur.

 

Moirangthem Okendro, Minister Rural Development said, “The Cabinet was concerned with the decline in the population of Manipuri Pony. In 2003, the number of pony was 1898 which decreased to 1101 in 2012.” Independent assessment says only 500 may have been left. 

 

The state Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Department will be the nodal department to implement the policy. Manipuri Pony Development Board will also be formed with Chief Minister as the Chairman. Clearly, they have suddenly woken up to the issue after years of campaigns, protests and civil society pressure. 

 

Manipuri ponies are considered to have descended from the Asian wild horse and have been recognised as one of the five breeds in India. Except, there were no conservation policies in place.

 

Manipur reveres its horses and it even has a temple- Marjing Temple just outside Imphal, probably the only temple anywhere for horses. The main deity IboudhouMarjing,sits on a winged pony, surrounded by smaller marble ponies. The temple is probably about good health and virility associated with horses.

 

It is no surprise that the modern game of polo was founded in obscurity here and this breed of ponies typical to Manipur were used for the game. The original polo pony can still be seen in Imphal though polo is not the favourite sport amongst Manipuris any longer. The first European polo club in India was The Retreat in Silchar started in 1859. The first competitive match as we know it today is also said to be held there in the same year. 

 

The club is no more, but a commemorative inscription of the first match still stands today behind the District Library in Silchar. The oldest club, still in existence, is the Calcutta PoloClub, which was established a few years later, in 1862.


In 1864, the Silchar Polo Club raised a team called Band of Brothers and they played in Calcutta. The ponies were taken by country boat. In 2009, a turbaned, dhoti-clad team played an exhibition match in what is now Kolkata;this time the ponies were transported in army trucks.

 

For a number of people, polo was and still is the most common introduction to Manipur. ‘Polo was founded there’ is a sentence one may hear from those who pretend to know a thing or two about this place. But beyond that,most will have nothing to narrate. Even insiders know very little about it. But the origins of polo may help historians trace the origins of the Meiteis.

 

Polo became a casualty to Manipur falling prey to the World War II and Patel’s annexation of Manipur to the IndianUnion. It lost state patronage and died a slow death.

 

The game was not called polo in Manipur. It was known as Sagol Kangjei which was adapted and adopted as polo.Sagol means pony and Kangjei is a game of sticks. In Manipur, it’s played with seven players each who mount and ride ponies that are usually about four-five feet tall. Each player is fitted with a stick made of bamboo root.

 

Extremely masculine and vigorous, the game is now played in two forms – the pana or original Manipur style and the international one. It is fascinating to see how elderly people also ride the ponies and play the game.

 

The players are attired in regal and indigenous dress, turbaned and they wear a dhoti-like outfit. It’s a white dhoti without borders, but it does not go below the knee. On his head the jockey wears a big white turban held by a khadangchet i.e. chin strap. He also wears a cotton jacket with short sleeves. The jacket and
khadangchet bear team colours.

 

Since no footwear is worn,the player covers his ankles with khunningkhang, a piece of leather or cloth held by straps. Above the khunningkhang,to protect the calves, he wears a padded shin guard called khongyam, also held by straps. It’s a coincidence of sorts but most of this region is very egalitarian and the royalty is not separated from the common man. Polo is otherwise considered a royal sport, but in Manipur it has always been a common man’s game.

 

The divine guardian, Marjing watches over the sport. One of the rituals performed even today in the Umang Lai (sylvan deities representing ancestors)
worship is a mime by the Maibi (priestess), holding a mallet in her hand, enacting a game of polo.Perhaps, time for Marjing to save the pony from trotting into extinction. 

 

(Part of this article has been excerpted from the author’s 2013 book Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s Northeast  Pan Macmillan)