The author is an air warrior, military historian and writer on warfare and military history
I first entered the Military academy and the day commenced with our reading a quote ‘If you sweat in peace, you will bleed less in war’ this about summed up the background of the training, which was tough. One of the regimens was learning to ride a horse. This is one of the traits of an officer and right from ancient times a horse is a symbol, both of a gentleman as well as a warrior.
As we learned to ride and mastered the many intricacies of riding, we were introduced to the game of Polo. This is a game played riding on a horse. The game is popularized in India by the Army which has a special corps looking after horses called the Remounts and veterinary corps. The game is played generally by the rich and affluent like maharajas and the Officers of the Indian Armed forces. I feel sad that the vast majority of Indians have no access to this game at all and maybe millions haven’t heard about it or just have a vague idea, having watched it only in films or some shows on TV.
People who do not know much about the sport can watch an excellent movie Zubieda(2001) with Manoj Bajpai playing a polo-loving Maharaja named Vijayender Singh. The film is available on the net. polo is a manly sport and the first requirement is extreme physical fitness. We learned it the hard way and on days we were to play polo and go horse riding we were up at 4 in the morning and got ready to hit the stables before 5 am. Frankly, we loved it, but as always we had a couple of scroungers.
The game has a checkered history. Historians tell us the game originated from Iran in the 5thCentury BC. That’s a pretty long time back, but the modern game is developed by the British, and by corollary, it was popularized in India also by the British. Sometimes I wonder how much we Indians owe to the Raj. It was a priceless period that saw the British introduce almost all sports like polo, cricket, hockey, and tennis to India. The first horse polo club in India was established at Silchar, Assam in 1834. In 1862, the oldest club still in existence, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by two British soldiers, Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart
Polo in India
Not many people will know that India is the birthplace of modern polo The modern game of polo is derived from Manipur, where the game was known as 'Sagol Kangjei', 'Kanjai-bazee', or 'Pulu.' Manipur is a state adjacent to Assam in Eastern India. Even earlier the game was played by the Turko-Indian rulers. One of the rulers who rose from slave to become sultan Qutabuddin Aibak was killed in 12010 in an accident during a game of polo at Lahore. He reportedly fell from his horse during a game and was impaled on the pommel of his saddle
Though the Kings of Manipur did play the game it was not popularized all over India and neither were the rules of the game framed. All this was done by the British who set up the first Club in India at Silchar in Assam in 1834. Subsequently, apart from the officers of the Armed forces, the Princes of India notably from Rajasthan took to this game in a big way. Incidentally, the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) who captained the Indian cricket team to England in 1946 was a good polo player as well.
The Game and Rules
Polo is a game played on horseback. As I have mentioned the first requirement is physical fitness and the second is the ability to be a good rider. As in all games, polo also has to be learned. All the rules of the game are so framed so that the safety of the horse and rider is paramount.
The polo field is one of the largest in terms of area and encompasses an area equal to 9 football fields. It is generally about 300 yards long and 160-200 yards wide. These are international standards and the game cannot be played on a smaller field. The field will have a goal post at one end like in a football field. The goal post is 7 ft wide and in addition, the field must have fine grass grown all over. This grass has to be specially looked after, hence setting up a polo field and its maintenance is quite an expense. Along with this, the clubhouse must have all amenities for the players and one can’t have a polo club without a clubhouse.
The game is played in 6 sessions of 7 minutes each. Opposing teams consist of 4 players on horses and there are also two mounted umpires. The umpires have to be good riders who have played the game before. The polo stick can vary in length as per the height of the horse. It is like in billiards where there are cues of different sizes. Generally, the length of a club or stick is from 48-53 inches. At one end of the stick is a mallet that is used to hit the ball. The stick may be made of bamboo, but now fiber is used
One thing, however, needs emphasis and that is this game can only be played by a right-handed person, left-handed persons are not allowed to play the game. In addition, trained horses are a must. Many polo clubs in India like the Jaipur polo club maintain their own horses.
The game starts off with both the teams assembling before the public on horses. Equestrian helmets and dress is worn and one cannot play in his own rig. The referee will blow the whistle and the game starts. It involves trying to hit the ball from horseback and net a goal. It’s something like hockey, but here a horse is the means of moving on the playing field. The ball used is made of high impact material and is about 4 ½ inches in diameter. Riders gallop forward and try and hit the ball into the net. This is a fast-paced game and one session of 7 ½ minutes can tax one's physical fitness. However, it is an exhilarating sport. A five-member jury sits outside the playing field and any disputes are adjudicated by them.
Polo is played in 77 countries and the Indian team takes part in many worldwide competitions. The game is popular in the USA, where it is controlled by the United States Polo Association. In India, the game is gaining in popularity but is not a mass-based game yet. It is sustained by the Indian Army, but now corporate sponsorship has come in and that is good news. I hope more people can learn to ride a horse and so play polo. A silver lining is that many intrepid women and girls are playing the game. Many times mixed matches with both men and women take place. I do recollect an excellent association with the Princess of Jaipur who was a superb polo player. That incident is for another day.
MG Singh (author) from UAE on December 07, 2020:
Thank you, Tom, for your comment. I didn't know about the India -Pak polo match. Pickles Sodhi was another great polo player. One of my best friends Major Sangha was a wonderful polo player but he fell from his horse and died.
tom on December 07, 2020:
polo was called chaughan in iran.1950s pakistan army team beat indian army team in delhi,watched by nehru,famous polo player rao raja hanut singh,not to be confused with lt gen hanut
MG Singh (author) from UAE on December 06, 2020:
Thank you Trever for commenting. Great to know that you and your daughter are fond of polo
Lt Col Trever on December 06, 2020:
Hi, this is a fine article. When I was in the army I played a lot and it's a wonderful game. It's wonderful to know that India is the home of Polo. Simply great. My daughter is also a good player.
MG Singh (author) from UAE on October 25, 2011:
Thank you milkfrother. Great of you to have commented
milkfrother on October 25, 2011:
The popularity of polo has increased hugely in the last thirty years. Prior to the 1980's it was a very exclusive sport, in England at least and I think elsewhere also, and only the very rich could even dream of playing unless they were in the Army and posted abroad. Corporate sponsorship has changed this and the game is now more accessible.
I enjoyed your hub. It is interesting and informative.