Jun 062017
 

On this date in 913 the Byzantine emperor Alexander III died of exhaustion after a game of tzykanion, the Greek name for polo, allegedly fulfilling his brother’s prophecy that he would reign for 13 months only. Seems like as good a reason as any to talk about the history of the game. Alexander, on the other hand, is scarcely worth a mention; historians variously describe him as drunk, cruel, lecherous, and malignant.

Polo originated in ancient Persia. Its creation is dated variously from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. Like football, there were probably various ball games played on horseback throughout the east dating into antiquity. The first properly authenticated reference states that the Persian Emperor Shapur II learnt to play polo when he was 7 years old in 316 CE. The game was picked up by the neighboring Byzantine Empire not long after. A tzykanisterion (stadium for playing tzykanion) was built by emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) inside the Great Palace of Constantinople.

Qutubuddin Aibak, a Turkic slave from Central Asia who later became the Sultan of Delhi in Northern India, ruled as a Sultan for only four years, from 1206 to 1210, but died accidentally in 1210 while he was playing a game of polo. His horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle.

After the Muslim conquests of Egypt and the Levant, creating the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties, their elites favored polo above all other sports in those regions. Notable sultans such as Saladin (1137 – 1193) and Baybars (1223 – 1277), are known to have played polo and encouraged it in their court. Polo sticks was one of the four suits in the deck of the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.

Around the 15th and 16th centuries polo migrated outward from the Persian empire to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent, especially in the northern areas of present-day Pakistan (notably Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and Baltistan), and China, where it was popular in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, where is was played by women as well as men. Many Tang dynasty tomb figures of female players survive. Polo was considered valuable for training cavalry, which accounts for its migration from Constantinople all the way to Japan by the late Middle Ages.  The name polo is said to have been derived from the Balti (Tibetic) word “pulu”, meaning ball.

The modern game of polo evolved from the game as it was played in Manipur, India, in the 19th century, where the game was known variously as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. The origins of the game in Manipur are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (Mukna Kangjei). I don’t want to know what wrestling hockey is. Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo, and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports may indicate an origin earlier than the historical records of Manipur. Later, according to Chaitharol-Kumbaba, a Royal Chronicle of the Manipur king Kangba who ruled Manipur much earlier than Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33 CE) introduced Sagol Kangjei (Kangjei on horseback). However, it was the first Mughal emperor, Babur (1483 – 1530), who popularized the sport in India, and regular playing of this game commenced in 1605 during the reign of King Khagemba under newly framed rules.

In Manipur, polo was, and is, traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands (52 inches, 132 cm). There are no goal posts, and a player scores simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players strike the ball with the long side of the mallet head, not the end. Players are not permitted to carry the ball, although blocking the ball with any part of the body except the open hand is permitted. The sticks are made of cane, and the balls are made from the roots of bamboo. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.

In Manipur, the game was originally played by anyone who owned a pony, including commoners. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort called Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, “Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally “Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.

The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State. The history of this polo ground is contained in the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaba (c. 33 CE). Lieutenant (later Major General) Joseph Ford Sherer visited Maripur and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. In 1862 the oldest polo club still in existence, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The game’s governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.

This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The early British game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and only a few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. In consequence teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.

Meanwhile, British settlers in the Argentine pampas started practicing polo during their free time. Among them, David Shennan is credited with having organized the first formal polo game in the country in 1875, at Estancia El Negrete, located in the province of Buenos Aires. The sport spread quickly among the gauchos, who were skillful horsemen (and proud of it), and several clubs opened in the following years in Venado Tuerto, Cañada de Gómez, Quilmes, and Flores. In 1892 The River Plate Polo Association was founded and constituted the basis for the current Asociación Argentina de Polo. In the Olympic Games held in Paris in 1924 an Argentine team took the gold medal (the country’s first Olympic gold) and repeated in Berlin in 1936. Argentina is credited globally as the mecca of polo, mainly because Argentina is the country historically with the largest number of 10-goal handicap players in the world – ever. Polo players are rated on a scale from minus-2 to 10. Minus-2 indicates a novice player, while a player rated at 10 goals has the highest handicap possible. It is so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that there are fewer than two dozen in the world, and about two-thirds of all players handicapped are rated at two goals or less. All living ten-goal handicappers are Argentinos, with the exception of David Stirling who was born in Uruguay but plays in Argentina.

I am spoilt for choice when it comes to recipes.  Persian? Indian? British? Argentino? Horse meat stew would be a bit morbidly ironic, I guess, although horse meat is popular in northern Italy. I’ll go with Manipur, since that’s probably the immediate home of modern polo.  Eromba is a classic dish of the Meitei community of Manipur. It is simple yet delicious, largely because of the local vegetable ingredients. Eromba can be prepared with just about any seasonal vegetables that are considered compatible, hence can vary across regions and seasons. The word “eromba” comes from eeru taana lonba, meaning “mixing stirring watery” which when pronounced quickly becomes eromba or eronba.

You don’t stand the remotest chance of getting the right ingredients, so I’ll give you the basic idea only. Eromba is a vegetable soup which can also have a non-vegetarian option (containing fermented fish, not meat). The main seasoning is the local chile, so it is hot. Vegetables that are considered compatible to be used in any combination are:

Taro(Colocasia esculenta)
Foxnut seeds (Euryale ferox)
Stink bean (Parkia speciosa)
East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma angustifolia)
Potato
Fermented bamboo shoot
Okra
Water mimosa (Neptunia oleracea)
Broad bean

Seasoning can include ngari (fermented fish) for the non-vegetarian version, plus hot green or red ghost chile, green onion, Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata).

You know the drill by now. If you want the taste of Manipur, buy a ticket.  I’ll see you there.  I’m heading to Mandalay in a few weeks for a teaching job, which is right across the border from Manipur.