Of Polo

A translated essay on the game of polo, originally known as sagol kaangjei that developed from the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur

Image: Project Gutenberg

Manipuri polo players, circa 1875
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Across the world, if nothing else, Manipur is famous for its classical Ras dance and the game of polo. We proudly claim them too as our contribution to humanity.

We need to commend our forefathers and remember them for our rich heritage.

Nobody knows the origin of polo. Lack of record and information has compelled us to accept just the fact that it was introduced in Europe after originating from India. People do believe that the game did develop from Manipur.

In India except from the place of origin, the game is known by the English term ‘polo’.  However, it was never included in English vocabulary. Linguists and anthropologists find that there is no apparent meaning to this name, so it is impossible to search the origin of the game etymologically. It is certain, however, that the term does not exist anywhere.

(*In Manipuri, sagol means a pony/horse, kaang a ball, and jei, deviated from chei, a stick/mallet used for hitting the ball)  

From kaang (an indigenous Manipuri indoor game of seven players a side), we have khong kaangjei (similar to hockey), and further we have sagol kaangjei. It is a clear indication from linguistic view that the game saw its birth in Manipur.

There is a creeper called kaangkhil, which we used to call it simply as kaang. From its model we have balls made of other creepers and even from elephant’s teeth. We hurl the ball or roll it and hit an object. It is believed that children started playing this game and developed into the game of present-day Kaang. Then it further gave rise to the term called panjel (the score or the number of hits.)

Just merely hitting and rolling the balls with bare hands was becoming trite so we took the game outside. Thus we saw the birth of khong kaangjei, or hockey, using sticks and a goal boundary. In olden days, people used to call the game as awok-athong (loosely meaning attack-and-counterattack.)

Gradually the rules started changing, so were the formats of the game. There were new styles of hitting the ball, ways to hit it the hardest, how the players tackle each other and so on. Kaang had been undergoing changes as well as newer games were coming to life.

After khong kaangjei, we saw the rise of mukna kaangjei (mukna is similar to wrestling.) Especially the youth started testing their strength, proving their courage and showing their guts. This was not enough and they mounted on horses and started playing sagol kaangjei!

As soon as they were on horseback, they needed newer sticks and mallets. In this regard, linguistically, it is interesting to note that the shorter stick was drilled and joined with a longer one and it was named as kaang-hoo (which in Manipuri is a literal name derived from how it is made by drilling, hootpa, and making a hole.)

With the advent of pony, the ball apparently became smaller. Until then it was not spherical and thus motion-challenged too. Since long it was made from a creeper plant but for convenience, bamboo stem was carefully chosen to make the ball and as appropriate it was, the new ball came to be known as kaangdroom (or literally a rounded ball).

Now we should explore deeper on the history of sagol kaangjei. Etymologically in Manipuri, the word sagol denotes a stooping animal. During the days of Poreiton*, there were only cows (sun as in the Sun) but no horses. In fact, cows were the only animal and the generic name saa is taken from the cow.

(*Poreiton was the brother-in-law of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, the first Manipuri/Kangleipaki king in the written history of the land that began from 33CE.)

The two illustrations are sourced from the Wikipedia page on the Burmese Military History. (Up: From A Series of Views in Burmah taken during Major Phayre’s Mission to the Court of Ava in 1855. Above: From An account of an embassy to the kingdom of Ava: sent by the Governor-General of India, in the year 1795)
Images: Wikimedia Commons

We can emphasise on horses though written evidences showed they were not readily available in the kingdom during those days. But there are proofs of mass presence during the days of Luwang Ningthou (the king of the Luwang clan). In the foothills of erstwhile Luwang Hills, there still exists a place called Sagollakpa Chingjin, referring to the sagol or horses. This area was under the control of the Punsiba, the Luwang king. It is still believed that even the wildest horses can be tamed effortlessly in this place.

In history there was always a sagol kaangjei match after the famed boat race which is still prevalent and known as Hiyaang Taanaba. Punsiba, the Luwang king, is also believed to be the inventor of boat race. So it is most likely that sagol kaangjei had its origin in that period.

Poireiton lived during a pre-historic era, even before the birth of Gautam Buddha*. Those who believed in the Mahabharata-Manipur relation estimate that sagol kaangjei had existed 600 years before the writing of the Indian Hindu epic.

(* Buddha is believed to have lived from 563–483 BCE. I’m unsure about how Poreiton lived during the time of Pakhangba.)

During the reign of King Gambhir (1825–1834 CE), the Seven Years Devastation (1819–1826 CE) took place after he was defeated in a Burmese war. We know many people had to flee to Cachar in Assam and adjoining areas. The European officials came across the game there, learnt its tricks and tips and they started playing in Kolkata around 1860.

The Historical Record Commission, in its Udaipur session, mentions that Emperor Akbar (1542–1605 CE) showed a fabric painting of polo to the members.  In those days, according to Chamber’s Encyclopaedia, the Persian poet Hafeez also wrote about the game:

May the ball of the heavens be forever in the crook of thy polo stick, and the whole world be a playing-ground unto thee. The fame of thy goodness has conquered the four quarters of the earth; may it be for all time a guardian unto thee! *

(*In the original essay, the quote is a 10-word, one-line expression, which can be roughly translated as ‘You the horse rider, our leader, come to the ground and hit the ball’. I have rewritten it for the sake of fine finishing this word-work.)

A similar game of polo is played in Tibet and Japan but the rules and formats of the game are quite different from sagol kaangjei. It is beyond a doubt that the game has existed in Manipur since immemorial times. Again, it is believed that Akbar was a patron, who did so much to promote the game. During the period of Queen Victoria, King Edward was the Prince of Wales. When he visited India in 1875, he witnessed a polo match in Kolkata too.

From chronological records and documented evolution of the game, we can assert that sagol kaangjei originated from Manipur. This is despite the fact that it is played all over Asia.  The Manipuris’ love for horse is reflected in the idiom, ‘Ema sigani kanglamlabadi sagol leiramgadababu’ or literally, ‘We could have bought a horse if we knew mother was to pass away’.

From history, we can see how children wanted to ride a horse, play sagol kaangjei and who would later in life took part in war and conquest. In Embassy to Ava*, it is mention in depth about how the Ava (or Awa which is a Manipuri generic term for Burmese and theirs for us is Kathe/Cassay) used and groomed prisoners of war as horse warriors. This is also why the British historians noted that the Cassay Horse, the cavalry of Manipuri horsemen took part in the Third Burmese War** and that there were Manipuris on both warring sides.

[* most probably this is a book written by John Crawfurd. Other historical records mention how during the Konbaung dynasty (1752–1885) the Manipuri cavalry was formed as an elite cavalry corps (the Cassay Horse) in the Burmese army.]

(** It is the Third Anglo-Burmese War, 1885. For more details, please refer to the histories of the Burmese military, French Indochina and the Konbaung Dynasty.)



All the references in the essay have been made to Indian history that we have little in common with; in fact we have no place in it. It is no surprise, though, the essay starts mentioning Ras in the first line, and the time of writing, 1965 was the peak of Indianisation process in the region.

It could have been much better if it followed a holistic approach or briefly, if the author had looked up all the records available from the eastern part of the erstwhile kingdom too. For instance, the Manipur pony is a cousin of Burmese pony. The British colonials also used this Burmese breed in playing polo.)

In terms of language, I have used the simplest words as many as possible, while ascertaining that the translation sticks to the gist of the original essay. For clarity, I have also inserted asterisks and notes; plus shortened the paragraph lengths.

Regarding the acclaimed Manipuri pony, nothing is mention about it in particular. In Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Horses and Ponies, it is mentioned:

The Manipuri breed has a light head with a straight profile, set on a well-formed neck, somewhat pronounced withers, a deep chest and sloping shoulders. The croup is sloping, the legs sturdy and the hooves well-proportioned. The ponies generally stand 11 to 13 hands (44 to 52 inches, 112 to 132 cm) high.

Manipuri pony



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