The Day of the Pony | Milaap

The Day of the Pony

The sun has entered the western half of a sky peppered with mid-level clouds. All along the boundary of the vast ground, coloured flags flutter in the south-easterly breeze – the only movement in the undisturbed ground. On the northern side, humans and vehicles can be seen flowing like a river on the Bir Tikendrajit road. There is a contrasting stillness on the eastern side, where a martyrs’ memorial park adjoins the ground. Tall, broad trees stand here like sentinels in rows, the Shaheed Minar jutting out into the sky from amongst them. Four Kangla Sha, the guarding lion-dragons, stand back-to-back atop the pillar, much like the Ashokan capital, with their roaring mouths frozen in time. Further east, the isolated Numaiching hill range provides a majestic backdrop to the unfolding scene below.

Inside the ground, some activity is picking up. A few polo ponies are here – saddled up, their tails braided with ribbons, forelocks combed and shins covered with bright-striped guards. Upon them ride women in orange polo t-shirts and leather riding boots – mallets and whips in their hands. They are all warming up, walking and trotting. Occasionally, a pony prodded on by the rider gallops across the width of the ground.

This is the Imphal Pologround, or Mapal Kangjeibung, ‘the oldest living playground in the world’, according to a hoarding installed high on the eastern edge of the ground. Literally meaning the ‘outside ground’, it’s located a stone’s throw away from Kangla, the ancient capital of the Manipur kingdom. Kangla has a smaller polo ground inside it, now converted into a helipad, which was used for the game of Sagol Kangjei, the ancestor of modern polo, for thousands of years. But it was the ground outside the palace, or Mapal Kangjeibung, where the first official and chronicled match of the game was ever played – back in 33 AD!

For women from the Imphal Riding Club, which took home the Governor's Cup this year, age is
no bar.                                      

Four pony-borne players from each of the two finalist clubs vying for the Governor’s Cup, along with two referees, line up in the centre of the field. A whistle is blown, the ball is thrown, and the game is on.
A crowd from the adjoining bazaar starts trickling into the stands. Packets are opened, areca nut pieces and other ingredients are wrapped in betel leaves, and the kwa is savoured as people make themselves at home. Out in the battleground, Langlen Devi scores the opener, and Habe chips in another goal before the end of the second chukker.

The Chingkhei Hunba Polo Club players are young women, probably 18 to 25 years of age, whereas the Imphal Riding Club players seem to be all middle-aged women, or at least above 30-35 years old. It’s clearly a battle of youth versus experience.

Eventually, the older players emerge victorious with a comfortable 4-0 win. When the final whistle is blown, there is little jubilation in the stands or the players’ corner. There are neither cheers nor any exuberant hugs as the winners return to their corner after shaking hands with the umpire, taking off their boots and sipping water, like workers finishing up a hard day’s work. The ponies also seem relieved, and quickly busy themselves with water, grass and fruits.

The men’s final is not so one-sided. X Polo Club takes a 5-3 lead over Chingkhei Hunba in the first three chukkers. In the final chukker, Leishemba and his pony from the losing team gallop towards the rivals’ goal-post in a desperate bid to equalise and... “ussss..” sighs the audience, a Manipuri expression, as the ball narrowly misses the goal. No other goal is scored till the final whistle, and X Polo Club takes home the cup.


King Kangba, who ruled Manipur in the 14th century B.C., is credited with the invention of Sagol Kangjei, the indigenous game on horseback that remained prevalent here for thousands of years before the British spotted it in the 19th century and took it to the rest of the world, resulting in the modern polo. Manipuris have historically been good on horseback. The cavalry unit of the Manipur kingdom was a formidable force, with expert horsemen galloping at full speed to throw poisoned darts called Arambai at the enemy in the battlefields. Even in the neighbouring Burmese kingdom, the cavalry was composed entirely of Manipuris during the 19th century.

Early British officers stationed here were impressed by this deep-rooted passion. In the 19th century, Captain RB Pemberton wrote that every inhabitant here, rich or poor, possessed a pony and Sagol Kangjei was “played by every male of the country capable of sitting on a horse, rendering them all expert equestrians”. This also helped the kingdom to repel attacks by Burmese invaders, who were reluctant to face the horsemen in the open fields.

Thus, unlike the elitist status which the modern polo seems to have gained, Sagol Kangjei was an egalitarian game played across classes.

A polo match in progress in Imphal, Manipur.

Pemberton was also impressed by the peculiar “hardihood and vigour” of the Manipuri pony. According to the National Research Centre on Equines, it’s one of the six indigenous horse breeds of the country, and is “one of the purest and prestigious breeds of equines of India”.

The pony has been a revered figure in Manipur’s history and folklore. Ashiba, a mythological figure, created the first pony (Shamaton Ayangba) which had wings and was used to attack humans created by his brother. But the wings were cut off by his rival and the pony was tamed. The pony is also associated with Marjing, a local deity, to whom the mallet and the ball are offered as worship even today.

But due to its neglect in recent times and shrinking grazing grounds, the Manipuri pony has become endangered. Mr Ibungochoubi from the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association fears the actual number of ponies today may be less than a thousand, though a census has been planned to ascertain the exact number. A revival of the game and the pony is underway, owing to tournaments such as these.


The tournament is over, and the players and the organisers are attending the closing ceremony in a makeshift stage on the ground. Away from them, the ponies are now in the care of young attendants. They are free from their shin guards and plaits, though the saddles are still on. They close in on the caretaker boys sitting in a circle on the ground below them, eating oranges. They are apparently at ease with these boys, trying to grab oranges from their hands.

After a while, some of the boys mount the ponies and trot and gallop in the evening breeze. The ponies are much more alive now, galloping with vigour and without restraint, unlike in the game when they were constantly reined, manoeuvred and even whipped. Just like a child playing in the evening is more alive than when he is attending the physical training class in school uniform, although both activities are not too different from each other.  

I often find these ponies tied in the same ground in early mornings, when their unblinking figures can be seen standing as motionless as the morning fog around them, as if in a painted picture. Now when called upon to move, they bolt around at lightning speeds. In motion as in stillness, they rule the game.

One of the brown ponies perhaps refused to bend to the will of his rider in the men’s final match and invited the player’s wrath, who fiercely whipped the animal several times on the sidelines of the game. The pony only reared in defiance.

Now, however, he seems to be in tune with his caretaker who’s riding upon him for the sheer joy of it. The boy prods him a little and he picks up speed, bolting across the length of the ground in fully stretched strides, leaving behind a trail of dust clouds. Saddled up, reined in, but wild and free at heart!