Polo Is a Global Sport. But It Started Here

Why you should care

British officers witnessed a local ballgame in India, and it became a pony-powered juggernaut. 

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In 1859, when Lt. Joseph Sherer, a British military officer posted in colonized India, saw turban-wearing and dhoti-clad local men from the northeast Indian state of Manipur playing a game called sagol kanjai, he was fascinated. In sagol kangjei, also known as pulu, meaning “ball” or “ballgame,” players riding ponies chased a ball and hit it with a stick to score a goal. Sherer took a liking to the game, as did other British soldiers in Silchar, in modern-day Assam state, where they had seen the Manipuri players. Sherer told his colleague, Capt. Robert Stewart, “We must learn the game.” And that’s how a local sport of Manipur, a state the size of New Jersey, became a global juggernaut, and pulu became polo.

Today, the sport is played in at least 70 countries. It featured in four Olympiads between 1900 and 1936, when the event was discontinued. Notably, no Indian polo team ever competed in the Olympic Games. But the sport as we know it may never have come about had Sherer not been assigned to Manipur during his tenure in India.

Sherer and Stewart formed the Silchar Kangjai Club in 1859. But when Sherer moved to Kolkata, then known as Calcutta and the capital of British India, he couldn’t stop thinking about the game. He and Stewart collaborated on turning sagol kangjei into a “proper sport” — i.e., an Anglicized version of what they had seen. So, in 1860, they established the Calcutta Polo Club, the world’s first organization for the (sort of) brand-new sport. In the modified version of sagol kangjei, there were four men per team as opposed to seven, and goal posts were added to the field.

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Manipuri polo players.

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“Modern polo is a slightly modified version of our sagol kangjei,” says Ranjit Singh Moirangthem, a retired Indian army lieutenant colonel and vice president of the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association. But rather than rejecting the changes to its homegrown game, Manipur takes pride in polo.

Every year in late November, the association organizes an international polo tournament in which local teams compete against those from other nations. The U.S., U.K., Germany and Morocco all participate. The tournament doesn’t just bring different teams together, though — it also pits different styles of the sport against each other. Manipur’s polo team retains some of the characteristics of the traditional sport. For instance, Manipuri polo players (the team is labeled India B) ride indigenous ponies that are just 11 or 12 hands high, or less than 52 inches tall, while players from the rest of India (known as India A) and from other countries ride horses that are more than 15 hands high. Manipuri ponies are known for both toughness and agility, and are traditionally unshod.

For Manipur, polo has a mythological dimension too. Folklore in the 2.5-million strong state — a former independent kingdom that until the 18th century used its own script — is replete with references to sagol kangjei, and ancient mythological texts such as the Thangmeirol and Kangjeirol refer to the sport. According to legend, Manipur’s god king Kangba invented the game in 14th century B.C., and King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba organized the first match in AD 33. The god of sagol kangjei in Manipur, who also oversees polo, is Marjing, always depicted astride a winged pony. During the Lai Haraoba festival in May, locals celebrate the game by visiting the pony-themed Marjing shrine on the outskirts of Imphal, Manipur’s capital.

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Natives of Manipur playing the national game.

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From Manipur and then Kolkata, polo spread to other parts of the world. It appeared in Malta in 1868, England in 1869, Ireland in 1870, Argentina in 1872 and Australia in 1874. It reached the U.S. in 1876, after James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, saw the sport in England and returned to New York with a rulebook and the necessary equipment. Today, no Indian player breaks the top 50 on the World Polo Tour’s player rankings. But in Manipur’s yearly tournament, India B, the Manipuri team, were champions in 2017 and 2018.

To be sure, sagol kangjei isn’t the only ancient sport with claims of having contributed to polo. According to the Polo Museum, in Fort Worth, Florida — which calls the equestrian sport “the sport of kings” — a version of polo also existed in Central Asia. More than 100 men played for each team in that version, which, according to the museum, migrated to Persia via nomadic tribes between 600 B.C. and A.D. 100. In Iran, the game soon became a national sport.

But the museum, along with other experts, makes clear that the modern game originated in Manipur, where polo is still king. In the sport’s global fraternity, the credit for its evolution from an ancient hobby to a modern game that has also spawned billion-dollar apparel companies like Ralph Lauren and U.S. Polo invariably goes to Sherer, widely called the Father of Modern Polo. But to locals in Manipur, it is Marjing, the winged-pony god of polo, who spread the game.

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