The women’s polo project has saddled up for a ride that will provide much-needed support to a sport gifted by Manipur to the world
Tanna Thoudam’s laugh warms up a chilly morning at the Northeast Sporting Union ground in Imphal as she tells the story: “My first taste of horse riding was thanks to my uncle. My father — his elder brother — didn’t want me to learn but my uncle didn’t bother with that and he went ahead and taught me the basics. I got a caning from my father when he heard about it.”
Ms Thoudam, whose encounters with horses and riding in the years since have not caused any such strife, is taking time from training at the ‘women’s polo grassroots development programme’ initiated by the Tata Trusts in November 2018. Aimed at providing a leg up to Manipuri women keen on the game, the programme has a three-year timeline and includes capsules for coaching education, scouting and, most crucially, structured training for up to 50 women.
“I love polo but I’ve never been formally trained in the sport,” says 22-year-old Ms Thoudam, who has represented Manipur at the national level in rowing. “This is an opportunity to get properly coached. Women in Manipur have the chance to shine in different sports but not in polo. I want to show people that women can play this game as well. I want to stand up and be counted as a polo player.”
The 30-odd hopefuls currently in the programme will get their shot at just that, and making Manipur the setting for the initiative is appropriate. “Polo has an important place in our history, our culture and our mythology,” explains Maisnam Khelendro, head coach in the initiative and a former captain of the Manipuri polo team. “For us the game is unique and the ponies we play with — the Meitei Sagol — are among the purest breeds in India.”
Pushing the envelope with women’s polo is a considered attempt by the Trusts to create a system where none existed. The reasons are ample. The women’s game in the country is handicapped, bereft of support and lacking in infrastructure. The scenario in Manipur is a little better. There are women players, the game has widespread appeal and its popularity is egalitarian in nature.
Making the most of these advantages is the declared objective of the programme, which is being implemented by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods (CML), an associate organisation of the Trusts, in collaboration with the All Manipur Polo Association. “This gives us the opportunity to empower women through polo and to mould a talent pool of players,” says Rajesh Siwakoti, senior executive (programmes) with CML.
The components of the programme define its scope and ambition. In the coaching education part, the idea is to get experts from the United States and Britain, powerhouses in the sport, to train and mentor local coaches. The scouting portion is about finding promising candidates from the 15-30 age group. Player development focuses on customised and regular coaching, practice sessions and life-skills education. Additionally, the initiative is aimed at providing competition exposure to the women players.
The encouragement for the women polo players aside, the expectation is that the programme will boost the numbers of the Meitei Sagol. “These ponies are an endangered species; there are fewer than 1,000 alive and only 500 in Manipur,” says Mr Khelendro. “We hope this initiative leads to more people breeding and raising them.” (The Marjing temple, perched on a hill outside Imphal, is dedicated to horses, and its main deity, Iboudhou Marjing, sits on a winged pony.)
Mr Khelendro has an order of priorities for the training of the players. “Physical fitness is critical and then comes building a relationship with the horse, game knowledge, technique, tactics and formations,” he says. “By the third year we want to have a squad that can take on international teams. I’m sure we can get to that point.”
Getting all the pieces in place has not been an easy ride for the Trusts. “It took some labour to get the partnerships together,” says Mr Siwakoti. “Finding the right candidates was also a challenge. Despite our best efforts, we could not attract a big number of applicants. We started out wanting players from the 15-to-25 age group, but we have relaxed that to take in women up to 30.”
Mr Siwakoti is modest about his long-term expectations of the project. “We are not in a position to give the players a professional future because the setup does not exist in India,” he says. “What we are trying to accomplish is make Manipur the fulcrum of women’s polo in India. Ultimately, from the sustainability standpoint, we want to convince the state government and the community to carry the baton. I think we can do this by running a successful programme.”
The fun bit in the programme is what Donkhamdar Khaling, a 17-year-old fresher in the project, is chasing after. “I’ve wanted to learn to play polo from my childhood,” she says. “This is my first time on a horse; I feel like I’m on top of the world. I want to be an international player and I’m hoping this project makes my dream come true.”
Polo’s origins are shrouded in doubt and conjecture but the historical consensus is that the so-called game of kings was first played by nomads in Central Asia. Try convincing Manipuris about that. Polo, they will insist, was born in the state. And they are right, in as much as the British chanced upon the sport in Manipur and took it to the world.
The Central Asia version holds that mounted horsemen of Iranian and Turkic extract played the game around 500 BC or earlier, with up to 100 a side, as part sport and part training for war. Nomadic migrations then took polo, it is further said, to Persia, Constantinople, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Japan and India.
The Manipur-first account, with its superior historical antecedents, is more precise, even if dated much later. References to polo — called Sagol Kangjei in the state — have been found in a script from AD 33. More solid evidence has it that British army officers saw the game being played in Manipur and were fascinated by the spectacle.
That led to the founding of the Silchar Polo Club in 1859 by colonial military men and tea planters. Polo spread quickly from there on, to Malta in 1868, England in 1869, Ireland in 1870, Argentina in 1872 and Australia in 1874. The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur. The oldest polo club still in existence is the Calcutta Polo Club, set up in 1862 by British soldiers.
The rules of the sport, as framed by the British, are somewhat different from how the Manipuris have theirs. It’s seven a side in Manipur to four a side in the global game. There are no goalposts in Manipuri polo (you score by hitting the ball out at either end of the field). There are two referees on horseback in the modern game. In the Manipuri variety there is only one, and he’s on foot.