The Spirit of Polo

Sawai Padmanabh Singh, HRH, Jaipur, as he is still referred to, is an accomplished polo player and at the age of 21, he has already been on the Indian Polo team for several years now. When asked about his love for the game of polo, he gushingly acknowledged, “for me, it is an addiction. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done — to be able to work with an animal, to be able to risk your life based on an animal. I don’t think there’s a more beautiful sport”. Unlike most other team sports, polo is unique for the symbiotic relationship between a human and an animal: the rider and his horse. The two of them, in effect, get fused in thought and action to emerge as a formidable combination of speed, agility, control and courage in this fast-moving and often dangerous competitive sport. A relatively small human rider in full control of a galloping 500 kg mass of sweaty animal flesh is a wonderful sight to behold.

Team sports are often a substitute for war. That would be true for the game of polo in two ways. Firstly, this folk team game started, perhaps 2,500 years back, among horse riding troops in Central Asia as a means for developing and honing the requisite skills for war, both for the rider and his mount. From there it spread along the Silk Route from Constantinople to China and gained royal patronage in Persia. Secondly, as in the volatile north western borderlands of Pakistan around Chitral, Gilgit and Baltistan, the game of polo serves as a vent for territorial and other disputes. The respective teams, competing in a hard-fought version of polo that is watched and cheered vociferously by their partisan supporters, end up fighting a proxy war. These traditions have been carried forward from the dim, impenetrable recesses of ancient history to our modern times by various cavalry units of modern armies.

The annals of polo in Jaipur invariably speak of the ‘Invincible’ Jaipur polo team led by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, that travelled to England in 1933. They won every tournament there. On this formidable record, Raja Hanut Singh, a member of that team, remarked with supreme self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, “we were the best strikers; we had the best ponies, we were the best horsemen. What could the others do?”. That team also won all tournaments in India from 1930 to 1938, with only the onset of the Second World War bringing their unprecedented run to an abrupt halt. The Alwar, Jodhpur, Kishangarh, Patiala, Golconda and Bhopal have been the other successful polo teams of that princely era.

The history of polo in India records the death of the Delhi Sultan Qutub-ud-din Aibak in 1210 from a fall while playing polo. The Mughals were enthusiastic patrons of polo, with Emperor Akbar reportedly being an accomplished player. After that, polo in India survived in its two extreme corners – Manipur and Ladakh. It was in the former that the British Army officers, Joseph Sherer and Robert Stewart, witnessed a local version of the game.

Fascinated, they introduced the sport to the army in Calcutta and gradually the game spread to the UK and to the other British colonies. Today, at least 16 countries play competitive polo, with Argentina being the modern powerhouse of the sport, both for the competence of its players and their horses.

Traditionally, polo would be played on whatever ground was available locally. The modern game has standardised the polo field to be 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, with two goal posts 8 yards distant in the centre of both the far ends. The teams, with four players each, try to hit the hard white ball with their stick-like mallets between the goalposts of the opposite side. The game is organised in seven and a half minute chukkas and a match may extend from four to eight chukkas, depending on the level of the tournament. There is a three-minute break after every chukka. The rules of the game are meant to ensure the safety of the riders and their horses. An important rule is a bar on a player crossing the ‘line of the ball’ (a presumed line along the trajectory of the moving ball) to avoid dangerous collisions. Two mounted umpires keep track of threats to the safety of the players and their horses, and any infraction is visited by a penalty of a free hit to the offended team. The severity of the threat decides the nature of the penalty.

Given the high tempo of the game, a horse cannot be used for two consecutive chukkas, and the riders have to keep changing their mounts. Initially, the use of local breeds for polo such as Manipuri or Marwari ponies was common.

With the globalisation of the sport, thoroughbred horses, bred from Arab stallions and English mares, by UK breeders have become almost the exclusive polo ponies among the current professional players. These thoroughbreds are a perfect blend of speed, stamina and a calm temperament for the swiftness and agility required in modern polo.

In India, the thoroughbreds, usually imported from England, the US or Argentina, can cost up to 50 lakh rupees each.

Two matches played at the Rajasthan Polo Club grounds in Jaipur were witnessed by me on the 1st and the 2nd of February, 2020. The exciting Raghu Sinha Mala Mathur Memorial Cup was won by the Malarpan team against RPC with a score line of 6 goals to 3. Next day, the Shree Cement Sirmur Cup was a thriller that saw the Sahara Warriors finally emerge as the winner against the Garcha Hotels team by just one goal, the final score reading eight is to seven. The players, with meagre financial returns from the games, were there primarily for the love of the sport.

Nevertheless, the champagne flew freely at the accompanying lunch and high tea. That is the spirit of this Game of the Kings.

Mahendra Singh
DG Income tax (Investigation) Rajasthan

The annals of polo in Jaipur invariably speak of the ‘Invincible’ Jaipur polo team led by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, that travelled to England in 1933 and won n every tournament there