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Polo at its Birthplace: How Polo is Played in Manipur?

    Polo is one of the oldest games. Scholars  usually point out that the earliest forms of the game were played in ancient Persia, that it later spread slowly to the East. The name Polo is said to have derived from pulu, the Tibetan word for ball. The Moghul conquerors brought Polo to India. But it died along with the decline of the Moghul Empire in India.
Polo in Manipur had a different ancestry. Manipur, one of the 25 States constituting the Indian Union today, was not a part of India until 1949. All the major ethnic groups constituting the Manipuri people are of the Mongoloid stock and their languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman family. Polo is a part of their cultural inheritance, as waves of people migrated from southern China in the prehistoric times.

Among the Meiteis, which is the predominant ethnic group among the Manipuri people, the divine guardian of polo is called Marjing. One of the rituals today in Umang Lai (sylvan deities representing ancestors) worship is a mime by the Maibi (priestess), holding a mallet in her hand, of a game of polo.

The British Connection:

Manipur existed as an independent kingdom for centuries until the British defeated them  in 1891. However, Anglo-Manipur relations were firmly established in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Burmese War 1819-24 which also resulted in the annexation of Assam to the British Indian Empire. A British Political Agent was stationed at Imphal, the capital of Manipur, from 1835.
British officers certainly saw Sagol Kangjei (polo) being played regularly at  Mapal Kangjeibung (polo ground) in Imphal because it was adjacent to both the royal palace and the Political Agency. Sagol literally means a pony in Manipuri language while Kangjei stands for a game played with sticks.
Polo is generally associated elsewhere with the royalty. In Manipur it was, and still is, played with enthusiasm by ordinary people so much so that, as a popular story goes, polo players were known to have pawned their wives to buy a pony.
The enthusiasm apparently infected Captain Robert Stewart, assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar, a district in Assam under British administration which also had a sizable Manipuri population as it was contiguous to Manipur. During 1853-54 he invariably joined the Manipuris when Sagol Kangjei was played at Silchar, the district headquarters.
In 1859 Stewart became the deputy commissioner and Lieutenant John Shearer joined as assistant deputy commissioner. The duo enthusiastically took to the game and they decided to start a polo club to play in matches against the Manipuri players. Thus came into existence, in March 1859, the Silchar Polo Club in a meeting held at Stewart’s bungalow. Its first elected members were Captain Robert Stewart, Lt. John Shearer, James Davidson, Julius Sandermon, James Abemetly, Arthur Brownlow, Earnest Echardt, W. Walker and A. Stewart. The Silchar Polo Club, now called the Retreat Club, is possibly the world's first polo club.
By 1861 polo was played in Dacca on the initiative of Captain Eustace Hill of Lahore Light Horse who saw the game being played on a trip to Cachar.  British merchants from Calcutta were similarly introduced to the game and got interested. The Calcutta Polo Club was formed in 1862. Now the game spread rapidly to almost every cantonment in British India.
In 1864, on invitation from Calcutta, the Silchar Polo Club raised a Manipuri polo team known as The Band of Brothers and Lt. John Shearer took them, with their ponies, to Calcutta by country boat. The team consisted of Toolsi Singh, Chowba Singh, Ammu Singh, Omah Singh, Tubal Singh, Aema Ba and Monga Pa. The Manipuri team easily defeated the Calcutta team.
A match was also staged between the Calcutta Polo Club and the Manipuri team on the occasion of a visit to Calcutta by the Prince of Wales in 1876. It ended in a draw. It was largely due to the tireless efforts of Lt. John Shearer that  Sagol Kangjei got transformed into the popular game of modern polo. When Shearer retired as a Major General, he was rightly acknowledged as the father of English Polo.
The first regular match in England was played at Hounslow in 1869 between the 10th Hussars and the 9th Lancers with eight a side. It was then known as ‘Hockey on Horseback’, a curiosity in the British society. The 10th Hussars won by three goals to two.  Hurlingham started polo in 1874 and soon became the headquarters of the game. The rest is part of fairly known polo history.

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The Manipur Story:
Sagol Kangjei always enjoyed the patronage of Manipur kings. After the Anglo-Manipur War 1891, when Manipur came under British suzerainty (not as a part of the British India), the government continued its patronage by including a separate provision for polo in the Manipur State Budget.
A Maharaja-in-Council, under a democratic Manipur constitution, governed when the British left the Indian subcontinent in 1947. A Manipur State Polo Committee was formed in 1948 by a resolution of the Manipur State Council to look after the game. The Maharaja was its patron. However, an abrupt change in the fortunes of polo occurred when Manipur became a part of India in October 1949. The entire polo establishment in the government was disbanded and government patronage to polo was discontinued.

 For a long time, permission was not granted for playing polo at Mapal Kangjeibung, the world’s oldest existing polo ground where Sagol Kangjei had been played since time immemorial. The consequent shock and hurt feelings among the Manipuri people was palpable.
The problem was aggravated by the utter destruction of properties and rampant dislocation in  socio-economic life during World War II in which Manipur was a ‘prize’ to be won between the Japanese and the Allied forces.  The pony was a casualty of the war. The Manipuri people were struggling for return to a normal life when the swift political changes overtook them.

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The All Manipur Polo Association (AMPA):

Polo players and the enthusiasts for the game established The All Manipur Polo Club at Imphal in 1955 in an effort to revive polo in Manipur.  Ironically, a major task for the Club was to regain Mapal Kangjeibung for polo. It succeeded partially, as polo was allowed to share it with other games like football and hockey.
The Club began to organize regular tournaments not only in traditional Sagol Kangjei but also in modern polo, because it was also affiliated to the Indian Polo Association, New Delhi. The Club changed its name to All Manipur Polo Association in 1986 in order to keep pace with its changing role.  Polo was witnessing a resurgence of public interest, but with a difference. This time, it was purely due to voluntary efforts of the Association and of many dedicated individuals and NGOs; the government paid only lip-service. Being a State-level organization, many polo teams/clubs were in turn affiliated to the Association. The Association is the authority in all matters relating to Sagol Kangjei.
At present, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, is the Royal Patron of the Association. The Patron-in-Chief is His Excellency Shri O.N. Shrivastava, the Governor of Manipur, while Shri W. Nipamacha Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur, is its Patron.

The Prospects:

Sagol Kangjei was never a game of the kings in Manipur; it was king of the games played by ordinary people. But unplanned land-use and urbanisation during the last 50 years have robbed the Manipur pony of its natural habitat and the polo teams of their playing grounds. It is becoming very expensive to maintain a polo team and increasingly difficult to find a suitable ground to play regular matches. On the other hand, it is not a customary practice to demand money for witnessing a polo match.
A time has come when local support is just not enough. It is in this context that a definitive research into and documentation on Sagol Kangjei  and its substantial contribution to modern polo, will be of immense significance.  Institutions, organizations or individuals interested in the above project may kindly contact the following for more information:

1. Prof. M.M. Chaudhri
Director, Consortium for Educational Communication (CEC)
Aruna Asaf Ali Marg
New Delhi 110067
Fax: 91 11 6897416

2. Dr. Th. Jekendra Singh
Director, Audio Visual Research Centre (AVRC)
Manipur University
Imphal 795003
Manipur, India
Fax: 91 385 221429

3. Oinam Somorendro Meetei
North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd.
G.S. Road, Guwahati - 781005
e-mail :

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SAGOL KANGJEI - The Polo in Manipuri Style

Height of Horses:
1. The game can be played on ponies of any height. The average height of Manipuri ponies is 11 to 13 hands.
Size of the field:

2.   The dimensions of the rectangular playing field are 210 yards in length and 100 yards in width. But it can be played also on smaller fields according to local conditions.

3.  (a) The number of players in a team will be seven.
(b) The players have definite names to denote their respective positions. Starting from the goal line i.e. the line along the width of the field, there is the Pun-ngakpa. A little up the field towards the center is the Pun-ngak-chung. Further up the field is the place for the Pallak and at the center plays the Langjei. There is another Pallak ahead of the Langjei.  Then there are the two forwards called the Panjenba and Panjenchung who, when the game starts, usually play against the opponent’s Pun-ngakpa and the Pun-ngak-chung respectively.
(c)  In the early times, the players must belong to one of six panas according to their status in the society. The panas of the higher class were Ahallup, Naharup, Khabam, and Laipham and those of the lower class were the Hidakphanba and Potsangba. Each of the higher panas had their own traditional distinctive color : white for Ahallup, yellow for Naharup, green for Khabam and red for Laipham.
(d) The higher panas traditionally played among themselves, and Hidakpahanba against the Potsangba only. When on special occasions, the best players from the Ahallup and the Naharup panas combined and played against a similarly combined team of the Khabam and the Laipham panas, the match was called Chare-kare.
(e) Nowadays, however, the game is no longer played according to one's membership to a pana as this social institution has become defunct. Only the name Pana Kangjei is retained to distinguish the Manipuri traditional polo from the modern polo. Clubs or teams affiliated to the State-level polo organization may use any distinctive color or uniform of their choice.  There is still no limit to the number of players for a team but, from practical considerations, it is usually limited to about a dozen.
The panas used here are different from, and should not be confused with, the Revenue Circles/Tahsils bearing the same names.

4.  (a) When the two teams have lined themselves up in the middle of the field behind the center line, each side on their respective side of the field, the match is started by the Huntre-hunba. He advances from the side of the field towards the center and from there he tosses the ball high up in the air shouting Huntre to indicate the start of play, and he retreats quickly. He repeats the procedure to start the play again after a goal has been scored and when the play starts after an interval. The ball should be thrown up as vertically as possible.
(b) There is a Kangburel who remains outside the field and watches the game. His decisions are final regarding the conduct of the game.
(c) There are two Goal Judges who raise a white flag every time a goal has been scored on their respective goal line; two Line Judges who toss the ball up in the air, like the Huntre-hunba does, from the spot on the sideline where the ball has gone out of the playing field. Nowadays, there is also a Timekeeper and a Scorer.
Size of the ball:

5.   The ball is made from the seasoned bamboo root and painted white. The size of the ball is about 100 mm in diameter and about 150 gms in weight.

How a goal is scored:
6.  (a) There are no goal posts. A goal is scored by a team when the ball crosses the terminal line on the other side i.e. the line on the width of the field.
(b) The scoring of a goal is formally announced by the sounding of a bugle or the blow of a conch.
Duration of the game:

7.  (a) In the early times, there was no definite time duration of a match.  It depended on the total number of goals to be scored in the match and it was fixed by the two teams before the start of play. There was a Pul-onba i.e. change of ends when the total scored reached half the number agreed upon. It was not uncommon to fix the number of goals to be scored at 80 or even 100. Any number of players and ponies could be substituted during play as and when necessary.
(b) Nowadays, the game is usually played in two periods of 20 minutes each, with a breather of 5 minutes at half time. The teams change ends at half time. There is still no limit to the number of players and ponies that can be substituted during play.

How a game is won:
8. The team that makes most goals will win the game.
Style of play:
9. (a) Sagol Kangjei is not a game played at an easy canter. When the
Huntre-hunba or the Line Judge has tossed the ball up in the air, the players are at liberty to strike the ball before it reaches the earth.
(b) A mounted player is allowed to pick the ball up from the ground by hand if he can. An expert player can make the ball roll up the mallet by a flick of hand and catch the ball. But in both cases, to score a goal, he must throw the ball up in the air and hit it with his mallet before reaching the goal line.
(c) There are no restrictions to a player regarding right of way so long as he is in control of the ball.
10. (a) In the early times, the traditional rules regarding the game were delightfully indifferent to any kind of foul. The conduct of the players were governed by thaksi-khasi or social etiquette which compelled a player to play fair.
(b) In 1928, the Maharaja forbade sagol tipnaba i.e. riding across an opponent or into a player with deliberate intent at an unsafe distance, and hairou i.e. deliberately hitting or hooking the mallet of an opponent above pony height or across the opponent’s pony at any height. These are still regarded as fouls.
(c) It is up to the decision of the Kangburel whether the offending player should be simply warned or stopped from playing further in the game.

Equipment for players:
11. (a) All players wear a white dhoti without borders, but it does not go below the knee. On his head he wears a big white turban held by a khadangchet i.e. chin strap. He also wears a cotton jacket with short sleeves. The jacket and khadangchet are in distinctive color of the particular team. Since no footwear is usually worn, the player covers his ankles with khunningkhang which is a piece of leather or cloth held by straps. Above khunningkhang, to protect the calves, he wears a padded khongyom which is also held by straps.
(b) On his left hand, the player holds a lash made of thick leather pleated together, together with a pair of reins which are attached to the bit. On his right hand, he holds the kanghu i.e. the mallet which is about four and a half feet long. At the upper end of the stick it is covered with cloth for about one and a half feet. The player usually holds the stick leaving about one foot to the upper end. The polo stick is fixed to the polo head, which is about 8 to 10 inches long, at an angle of 45 degrees. The stick is made of  seasoned cane.

Equipment for ponies:
12. (a) The Manipuri saddle looks outwardly too big for the small ponies.  Huge uncured buffalo or mithun skins called nakthing are suspended from the saddle on both sides of the pony. Its ends, fore and aft, are curled to protect the whole leg of the player.
(b) Big round balls of soft cotton are also usually suspended from the heads and backs of the ponies to serve as ornaments and to protect them from blows.

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Source: The All Manipur Polo Association, Imphal

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