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The Historical, Archaeological, Religious & Cultural Significance Of 'Kangla': The Ancient Citadel Of Manipur

Pandit N.Khelchandra Singh

Related Notes of Interest while on this topic

8. Manipur As The Origin Of Polo::

The Manipuri origin of sagol-kangjei (polo) is perhaps regarded as obscure because most theories supporting it are only mythological accounts and chronicles. Its claimed origin is according to these sources broad-banded during the reign of Marjing sometime between 3000-2000 B.C. There are references cited about the game to have been played between God-king Marjing and another God-king Thangjing in those pre-Christ days. But whatever may be its mystic origin or non-datable origin, Manipur remains the true original 'Home of Polo', as events have unfolded over the historiographed centuries. Even that further stands duly affirmed on 22nd June, 1891 by the Marquis of Ripon (Lord Ripon) who was earlier the Viceroy of India while speaking about the Manipur of the Anglo-Manipuri War, 1891 days:
"It is a small state; probably until these events took place very little known to your Lordships. Unless indeed some of you may have heard of it as the birthplace of the game of Polo (Sagol Kangjei)." Proceedings of the British Parliament (House of Lords), 1891, p.986.

Since then the Britishers kept on offering astute curiosity, personal participation, and ceremonial patronage, apart from keen interest in the course of the game as such. Ceremonial polo matches used to be prominently arranged on the circuit of important kings, princes, and other personages visiting Manipur as guests of the Maharaja or the Government. In 1864, during the visit of Colonel Kintinze, the Chief Commisioner of Assam, there was a friendly polo match on Friday Lamda (March) between Col. Kintinze and Ningthem (Chandrakirti) playing as rival captains (Cheitharol Kumbaba, p.361). Also in 1875 when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) visited India an exhibition polo match was arranged in Calcutta (Yumjao:Wareng Akhanba,1973. p.57). Further on Tuesday, the 7th January, 1931 such an exhibition match was put up during the visit of Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India at the Mapal Kangjeibung or the Imphal Pologround right in front of the old Pologround Stand (since demolished and replaced by galleries and stands on its entire western boundary).

The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, Imphal, Manipur is in possession of a rare group photograph taken on the occasion of the exhibition match (1931) with the Viceroy and his entourage, His Highness Sir Churachand Singh, KCSI, CBE, Maharaja of Manipur, Queen Dhanamanjuri (Ngangbi Maharani), Princess Tombiyaima (Tombisana) and Princess Tamphasana, showing very prominently the Old Pologround Stand (tile-roofed and front-open) with the old banyan tree at the rear stretching out its branches almost all over the western half of the stand (since uprooted).

Mention may be made of polo _ during its ascendancy at the beginning of the 20th century _ even finding a prominent place as an event in the Olympic games on as many as five occasions: 1900, 1908, 1920, 1924, and 1936. Since then it had to be dropped till date on account of its prohibitively heavy expenditure to be incurred by its organizers as well as participants and hosting countries. Of course international polo tournaments had all through been arranged the world over during the polo season (winter) on behalf of polo institutions. Earlier played both as a pastime of the entire valley population and as a very popular club-level or pana-level game, Sagol Kangjei had been the traditional game of Manipur since time immemorial. The records of All Manipur Polo Association (AMPA) trace one Joseph Sherer of the Bengal Army (later becoming Major General Sherer) as the first Britisher to have ever played Sagol Kangjei in its native form. And in recognition of this fact, the Indian Polo Association cited in its Year Book, 1958 the indebtedness of polo to Sagol Kangjei as follows:
"Manipur claims to be the birthplace of polo. According to local tradition, the game which is known as Sagol Kangjei and is associated with local mythology, originated about 5000 years ago. The season for the game commences annually at the time of Mera, from which the month, season and year is calculated. It was in 1868 that an Army officer took two teams to Calcutta for an exhibition polo game played there. From there the game became popular in other parts of India and was some time after introduced in Great Britain from where it spread to other countries..."

The very name 'Polo' was coined by Capt. R. B.Pemberton after he saw the indigenous game being played in Silchar prior to 1840 when he felt that the game was being played with a rounded toy or a kind of tennis/hockey or cricket ball called pulu in Kashmiri or Tibetan. His comment renders a lucid reading:
"The national game of Hockey, which is played by every male in the country, capable of sitting on a horse, renders them all expert equestrians; and it was by men and horses so trained that the princes of Muneepoor were able for many years not only to repel the aggressions of the Burmese but to scour the whole country east of the Ningthee river, and plant their banners on the banks of the Irrawattee in the heart of the capital of Ava. So deeply are the Burmese impressed with the superiority of the Muneepooree horse, that upto the present moment, the elite of their cavalry consists of this description of trooper whom they rarely ventured to meet in the open field." (Reports on the Eastern Frontier of British India, 1966, p.33)

While recording the name of the sagol-kangjei as Polo the officials of the British East India Company kept their views on the origin of the game in Manipur, the land of the Manipuris as: A. "The other games are all fair enough and have their admirers, but the game of Munnipore is hockey-on-horseback, a thoroughly manly and most exciting exercise." (W. McCulloch: Account of the Valley of Munnipore. Calcutta. First Published: 1859)

B. "The outdoor games of the Manipuris are few; indeed, the only one, it may be said, which has any popularity, is hockey-on-horseback _ a game peculiar to Manipur, but which of late years has spread over and become popular throughout a large portion of British India..."

"The polo of Manipur differs in certain respects from the polo of British India. There is no off-side. Each player has his position in the field relatively to the other defined and each player is attended by an opponent who never leaves him. Thus the back on each side find themselves at every turn opposed by the advanced guard (as it were) of opposing part."

C. "There are no goal posts. A man may catch the ball and run with it as in Rugby Football, and there is absolutely no limit, as to crossing and hitting of hockey sticks" (E.W.Dun: Gazetteer of Manipur: Delhi 1975) All these facts have since been incorporated in the reference books like Encyclopedia and passed on to the present and by turn to the posterity. But tracing its development, Encyclopedia Britannia would signal the transfer to the British sport-lovers by admitting that:
"The first western Polo players were the British tea-planters in Assam who learned the game in nearby Manipur on the Indo-Burmese Border. They formed the first European Polo Club in 1859 at Silchar and drew up the rules."

The next journey of polo was inland from Silchar to Calcutta as cited by M. Bhattacharyya in The Gazetteer of Manipur: Calcutta, 1963: " The Manipuris called the game Kangjei and the first recorded English players called it hockey- on-horseback; word "polo" subsequently coming from 'Kasmir". The game lapsed somewhat during the meeting of 1857-58. In March, 1859 the Silchar Polo Club was formed by the planters of the district and they invited the Manipuris to play with them…In 1861 one Captain Eustance Hill is supposed to have introduced the game in Dacca. In course of the next few years Calcutta merchants on their various business trips to Cachar saw the game being played and decided to introduce it in Calcutta. A start was made in Ballygunge Parade Ground and in March, 1863 the Calcutta Polo Club was formed." (p.199-200). As to its original playground in Manipur, Sir James Johnstone, the Political Agent at Manipur wrote:

"Between the Residency grounds, the "Sena Keithel" and the great road, was the famous polo ground, where the best play in the world might be seen. There was a grand stand for the Royal family on the western side, and one for myself on the north. Sunday evening was the favourite day and then the princes appeared, and in the earlier days the Maharajah. In my time one of the Maharaja's sons, Pucca Sena, and the Artillery Major, were the champion players."

And the game used to be played so much skillfully and attractively by the tactful players with great admiration on the part of jubilant spectators, that T.C.Hodson wrote in his book: The Meitheis: "[T]he game is played beyond the powers of any, but an imaginative and practiced pen, for, in respect of brilliance of play, constant excitement, rashness, courage, skill and popular enthusiasm, there is no game equal to it."

The Guinness Book of Records (1991) cites that "Polo can be traced to originate in Manipur State, India, C. 3100 B.C., when it used to be played as Sagol Kangjei (sagol=horse; and kangjei= a kind of hockey-stick)". Perhaps not so much as a sport or a pastime _ which have definite modern moorings _ but much more as a paraphernalia of state formation, polo-playing must have been insisted among the then subjects of a feudal state who would stand out much more differently from the present day citizenry in the sense that it was obligatory on their part to keep fit as fighting militia.

Also not to be discounted herein is thus its intended use as an instrument of state evolution and consolidation. To be precise, in the evolution of an organized state from the tribal state (during the pre-Pakhangba era before Christ) the enchanted polo-ground then situated right in front of the Kangla towards the west must have played its due pivotal role. According to the royal chronicles all the entertainment of the public including Sagol Kangjei (later world-famous as polo) with the active participation of those mythical characters had been organized in this ground. This pologround is oft-referred to in the chronicles as the mapan kangjeibung, while the royalty used to maintain yet another known as the manung kangjeibung also shown in the appended Kangla map.

Apart from the ritualistic systems of the evolving religious cults viz. ancestor worship, the palace, the royal deity, such regular polo-games khong-kangjei (hockey), yubi-lakpi (game played with coconut, more like the modern rugby), heeyang-tannaba (boat-race), Lamjel (race), or Mukna (Manipuri style wrestling), Ukai-Kappa (arrow shooting) etc. much have rendered an aura to the royalty for attracting public participation and focus public gaze towards the Kangla as an institution _ a living bondage at that for the able-bodied citizenry, particularly males, to the monarchy.

Almost as a matter of sheer necessity, these skilled polo-players would even utilize their astute horsemanship in time of war for throwing well-honed arambais (modified arrows with much faster and more destructive power) often hitting the enemies laterally, sideways or from behind, rather than of course from the front _ hence with a complete element of surprise and thus with a devastating effect on the enemy. Even among the indigenous games, Sagol-Kangjei could be contradistinguished as embodying a rigorous militant culture in tune with the Meitei king's ambition to build up a core unit of cavalry which could sustain the unified body polity. In particular any male youth would become imbibed with such physical and military training right from childhood (in the absence of any formal education) from the standpoint of rendering them fit militia as conscripts as envisaged under the Lallup system. Such was the acculturation of physical education aimed at military ideology in the face of their perennial rivalry against the Burmese.

Its parallel had been recorded in Greece during their need of militancy culture between the Athenians and the Spartans _ a legacy which later proved contributory to Alexander's challenge by way of a world conqueror. This indigenous game used to be played since the time of king Khagemba (1597-1652) at the pana-level among six prominent panas (or administrative units existing since historical times) viz. Ahallup, Laipham, Khabam, Naharup, Hidakphaba and Potsangba. Since then the state-level polo game became known as pana sagol kangjei. The well-trained equestrian moorings in a Manipuri, mounted on his equally trained and intuitive horse, would strike the wooden ball by a long-handled mallet from the horseback in a galloping speed to score a goal much to the appreciation of polo-loving audience in this very traditional pologround.

All classes of people right from the commoners to the king used to play friendly matches at the village level using community ponies, while others would enjoy the rough but excellent progress of the game at the villagers' own grazing ground _ the true character of a national game. It would thus be wrong to assume that it used to be played only by the rich, the nobles and the professionals (G.Evans and E.Breet James: Imphal: London,1982, p.10.) Except some princesses becoming expert horse-riders, there is hardly any mention of females coming forward in these very robust games of sheer tact, strong physique, and mastery in terms of out-maneuverings.

As cited herein, kaang-sannaba would be the exclusive pastime for young females, while, generally speaking, the middle-aged females would be engaged in retail trade in the main marketplace, as has been the practice ever since. It is in continued cognizance of this ancient contact and patronage that Prince Charles has recently agreed to be the Royal Patron of AMPA for a five year tenure as per letter received by Prof. K.S. Singh of AMPA issued by Stephen Lamport, the Private Secretary to HRH The Prince of Wales dated 7th February, 2002, St. James Palace, London, SW1A IBS.

Today the top polo-playing nations are UK, USA, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Kenya and of course the host-nation, India. As in ancient Manipur, the present generation still enjoy a game of polo or its indigenous variant the khong-kangjei, through interests sustained by a network of polo-clubs in the remote villages of Manipur, affiliated to the AMPA. Specific mention need be made of the fact that Manipur hosted International Polo Tournament in 1991 (hosted by AMPA and the Manipur Horse-Riding and Polo Institute) and since then enthused some women to play polo in international circuits hosted at Imphal.

The traditional game of sagol kangjei is played between two teams, each consisting of seven mounted players wearing tight dhoti tucked-up above the knees with half-sleeved jacket-like shirts, swathing their heads in white kokyet or turban and a khadang-yet or a coloured piece of cloth to tie the turban intact by tying it below the under-chin _ rather the indigenous headgear to protect from possible injuries. The players are mounted on a saddle (sabal) made of leather and wood, each holding a 4.24 ft. (or 1.8 meter)-long kanghu, local for polo-stick to hit the kangdrum or the polo ball (having a circumference of 11 inches and weight between 4.52 and 3.75 oz. roughly equivalent to 166.635 and 132.175 gms.

Based on those traditional Manipuri rules, the modified Polo rules were framed and adopted by the Controlling Board for the International game of polo the Hurlingham-based English Polo Association. The 'warlike' display of polo-playing style has since been discarded. For instance when the ball is in the air, any player would have been free to catch it and gallop with it to score a goal by hitting it from the air. But this is considered a very peculiar and dangerous style of play from the modern standpoint although very much appreciated by the polo-lover spectators in Manipur as the most outstanding and heroic show of sportsmanship. These practices were perhaps designed with a view to keeping themselves fit as militiamen for their active and immediate participation in the war on behalf of the king. However modern polo is to be played differently with four players aside on 4 horses on a ground having a length between 230 and 275 metres and a width between 146 and 180 metres, with goal-posts placed at both ends of the pologround. The two goal-posts are placed leaving a gap of 7 feet in which the ball is to be hit into. Naturally there should also be sidelines and goal-lines etc. marked all over the ground with the four corners clearly indicated by red and white colours. Red, yellow and blue colour flags are also fixed at the side lines to indicate 30, 40 and 60 yards free-hit lines respectively. The two centers of the sidelines are also marked with white colour flags for distinct location from a distance.

The duration of the game is usually 4 to 6 rounds of play, each round lasting seven and a half minute, called a chukker, after which there is a rest period provided for the players and the horses. And after two or three chukkers of play there is a halftime break of 5 minutes during which the horses need be changed. The player drives the ball towards the goal post by executing free strokes and in case of obstruction by the opponent player, he is awarded free hits towards the goalposts of the defaulting team. Similar free hits are also provided for other faults like crisscrossing the horses, hitting down, hooking or hitching up the opponent's stick. And for very dangerous foul plays, free hits from the 30-yard line is awarded. In this game a good player, more like a dancer, has to dance with his kanghu (mallet) while striking or carrying the kangdrum (ball) towards the goal. For him coordination between his line of action and strict obedience of his pony is the single greatest factor which stands between a goal and a missed one. The skill of the player is as important as that of the pony beneath. As the saying goes in polo: ' A player is identified by his pony and a good pony by the player'.

The most common strike, when the ball is full length, is the swing of the arm with a circle at the shoulder joint to generate a full strength and maximum speed. And this would be seen more in the international polo circuit. But the traditional style in the pana sagol kangjei circuit is different, and most strikes are made with a circle at the wrist-joint movement (wrist circumduction). Both for short and long distance hits wrist-movements would thus be strategic. In both clockwise and anticlockwise directions the circumduction has to proceed _ whether at the shoulder-joint or at the wrist-joint level. And the more they practice, the greater the arm-flexibility. Variability as between wrist and shoulder would also depend mainly on whether he is hitting the ball from the (a) nearside; (b) offside; or (c) backside. On an average a player strikes 80% nearside; 7% offside; and 13% backside. Most traditional players opt arm-power because shoulder-power is much more strenuous and therefore tiring. Besides, for changing directions continuously, the shorter Manipuri ponies have much more maneuverability. And it goes without saying that the greater the maneuverability of the pony, the greater the scope for effective play. However ball-passing is not as commonly used as individual stick-play. One can carry the ball by nearside and offside hits like dribbling in football. But then the most skillful polo-player is regarded as one who can adapt one's speed under changed circumstances, by diagonally bisecting the midfield, chasing the ball, carrying it, and turning clockwise to score the goal easily.

With the abolition of monarchy in the State half a century ago, the 'nodal authority' of controlling and regulating polo has virtually passed onto the AMPA, particularly in respect of the indigenous Pana game of Sagol Kangjei. Nevertheless, AMPA has itself come under the control of the All India Polo Association, being one of its members, and is thus bound by the International Polo rules under the International Polo Association with headquarters in Hurlingham, England, in so far as conducting international style of polo is concerned. On reckoning, the popularity of polo among Manipuri folks and commoners has been quite astounding, because the upkeep of a pony exclusively for a pastime like polo by a commoner would, according to the fancy of a detached observer, appear almost impossible.

However, the practice in those days, as is still true, used to be to let off the pony after some use for grazing in the vast landscape around the habitat of the commoner household. Because, the Manipuri ponies are quite fond of grazing the new grass sprouts (tinghtou) in the wild state, with some bran or paddy etc. as additives. But to ascribe its popularity to natural advantages and not to specifically attribute it to the commoners' traditional skill, and public encouragement would also be an understatement.

Even though Manipur has been described as having gifted polo to the world, the indigenous ponies to whom polo owes its origin since time immemorial are now facing extinction in their very home surface. The alarming decline in the pony population in the State is mainly due to their exodus to Myanmar where ponies are popularly used as draught animals for carts _ unlike in Manipur. The apex body of polo clubs in the State has reported that currently (2005) there are only about 500 ponies in the valley with the hill areas reporting an alarming picture of below 300 ponies _ against 811 males and 681 female in the last head count in 1992. As polo clubs have declined, ponies are no longer needed in Manipur as earlier and therefore less cared for, even if not neglected. There have been larger number of instances of pony being disposed of. Hence there is an apparent positive correlation between growth of pony population and the ascendancy of polo. And perhaps more such clubs could be financially encouraged with grants for rearing the rare variety particularly in the rural areas and conduct of training programmes on economic viability of ponies.


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