The sport of kings

My heart began pumping adrenaline in huge amounts as four identically clad horsemen charged headlong across a grass covered field measuring 300 by 160 yards, swinging long mallet like ‘sticks’ in a bid to maneuver a hard wooden ball into the goal, while an equal number of equally adept and fearless riders attired in a different color, desperately tried to thwart them with no apparent thought to their life or limbs. With heart racing, I watched the game, vowing as always never to do so again for ‘health’s sake’, but every season, I am inexorably drawn to the venue, where with bated breath, I stand witness to an ancient relationship between man and horse as they indulge in the Sport of Kings – Polo.

The pedigree of the game can be traced back to sometime between the 6th Century BC and the 1st Century AD, as a favorite tribal sport in the Hindu Kush, the Central Asian grasslands beyond and China, from where it spread into Persia in the West and Manipur in the East. The sport’s appearance in Persia is stated to be during the period of the Parthian Empire i.e. 247 BC to 224 AD, where it flourished into the 16th Century by the name of ‘Chaugan’, under popular patronage of kings and nobility. Some British historians say that the word (chaugan) was derived from the ‘stick’ carried by the players, while others link it with the number of riders in each side. The former version however, appears to be accurate since the ‘team of four’ is a relatively modern innovation. The current name ‘Polo’ however appears to have been derived from the Tibetan word ‘Pulu’ or ‘ball’. This may well be correct since the ‘stick and ball game on hard ridden ponies’ was popular in ancient Tibet.

The ferocity and passion of how the game has been played over centuries can be borne by the toll it has taken on its playing fields. The Byzantine Emperor Alexander, who died from exhaustion while hotly engaged in pursuing the ball; King John I of Trebizond, who breathed his last as result of a fatal injury suffered during the game; Sultan Kutubuddin Aibak from the Slave Dynasty, who became a victim of this sport, when his horse fell, impaling its rider on the pommel.

From Persia, the game spread to South Asia and the Sub Continent, where it continued to be patronized by the Mughal emperors and later the British. The modern game of polo is derived from Manipur, where it was known as ‘Pulu’ and it is in all probability, the anglicized form of this word, which was adopted by the sport in its slow spread to the West. Lieutenant (later Major General) Joseph Ford Sherer, credited as the father of modern polo is said to have introduced the game in England. The English are also credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was in 1875 that British settlers in the Argentine pampas organized the first formal polo game of the country in Buenos Aires, setting the stage for Argentina to become a leading polo playing nation and popularizing the sport in Brazil, Chile and Mexico. The credit of introducing the game in USA must again go the English. It is widely believed that British Texans organized the first formal polo match in Galveston somewhere in 1876.

In Pakistan, this exciting battle for the ball found many patrons amongst the military and those who could afford to maintain strings of polo ponies. It is however in the Northern Areas i.e. Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and Baltistan, where this game has endured and flourished since centuries. The most picturesque manifestation of the sport is during the annual Shandur Polo Tournament between traditional rival teams of Gilgit and Chitral. This is polo in its old ‘raw power’ form – a no holds barred game that enthralls local and foreign visitors in a setting that takes one back in time.

For the spectators watching the foam flecked horses, their intrepid riders and their skill with rein and spur, this is ample evidence that what they are seeing is indeed a ‘Sport of Kings’.

The writer is a historian.

The current name ‘Polo’ however appears to have been derived from the Tibetan word ‘Pulu’ or ‘ball’. This may well be correct since the ‘stick and ball game on hard ridden
ponies’ was popular in ancient Tibet.

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