Original polo ponies an endangered species

Manipur polo players and their ponies circa 1875. Their version of polo was the model for the subsequent international game. Photo / Supplied
Manipur polo players and their ponies circa 1875. Their version of polo was the model for the subsequent international game. Photo / Supplied

Distinctive polo ponies peculiar to India's northeastern Manipur province, where the game associated with aristocrats and royalty originated thousands of years ago, are fast becoming endangered.

The 1.5m tall, agile and enduring Manipuri polo ponies are beset by loss of habitat and grazing grounds due to an expanding human population, inadequate breeding and veterinarian facilities and a resource crunch that's lead to a shortage of nutritious fodder.

Additionally, these specialised ponies had, over years, been smuggled across the porous border to frontier towns in neighbouring Myanmar barely 50km away and yoked to carts for transporting passengers and material.

Locals too were similarly withdrawing them from polo tourneys and dragooning them to haul loads in remote and sparsely populated hill districts surrounding the lush Manipur Valley where the majority of the state's 2.7 million people live.

Ponies swallowing discarded polythene bags also led to instances of painful suffocation while many others died after being beaten up or knifed by local farmers for straying into their paddy fields.

"Polo is a common man's game in Manipur but the majority of its proponents are unable to afford suitable upkeep for their ponies," Noren Singh, honorary secretary of the Manipur Polo Association, said.

"We are constantly running from pillar to post for money to ensure the ponies' survival and at times even contribute from our own pockets but that's barely enough," he ruefully added.

If something is not done quickly the Manipuri polo ponies will become extinct, Singh warned.

The majority of Manipur's polo players are school and college students, farmers and even labourers whose passion for the game was in inverse proportion to their limited finances essential to sustain and perpetuate their singular horses.

According to Manipur's 17 surviving polo clubs - down from around 25 a few years ago - there are some 500 ponies in the Valley and just half that number in the adjoining hill regions compared to around 1100 in 2007.

But polo ponies are hardly a priority in Manipur which remains one of India's most backward and insurgency-ridden provinces.

It also has the highest rate of heroin addiction - the narcotic is available cheaply, smuggled from Myanmar - and an alarmingly high rate of HIV infection.

Known locally as "Sagol-Kangjei" - sagol for horse and kangjei meaning mallet or hockey stick - polo originated in Manipur around 3100BC and was played by royalty and the king's cavalry.

In the mid-19th century British tea planters chanced upon it in Imphal at the world's oldest existing polo ground and adapted it to the way it is played today.

- NZ Herald

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