The elite image of polo belies its humble origins. Few know that the game has its roots in Manipur; according to local conservationist L. Somi Roy, when the Manipuri king was in exile in Assam in the mid-1800s, some British soldiers watched the king’s soldiers play “horse hockey.” The British too joined in, and soon the game spread to Calcutta, and from there to Britain, where they recorded the rules for the game at the prestigious Hurlingham Club, and called it polo.
The indigenous, semi-feral Manipuri pony is the original polo animal. It was sacred to the Meiteis, Manipur’s largest ethnic group and not used for domestic work, but only for sport, ritual and war. Over decades, as unrest mounted in Manipur, the storied pony lost most of its grazing areas, and was found roaming the streets and eating garbage.
In 2013, Roy, a film curator in the U.S., returned to Imphal after three decades. Moved by the Manipuri pony’s plight, he recognised the need to preserve the rare breed and restore its pride in the state. With the support of the United States Polo Association (USPA), Roy forged an international partnership to highlight the plight of the animal using the glamorous appeal of polo. The state government too joined hands and began organising international games and training camps to create awareness about the animal and elevate the game of modern polo in Manipur. In fact, the sign at Imphal’s polo stadium reads “Manipur Gave The World The Game of Polo.” And hearteningly, the Manipuri pony finds a place once again in aspects of Manipur’s culture, society, and economy.