Take a long step back into ancient history heading due east. Where current day India ends past Assam (renowned for Assam and Darjeeling tea), and Burma land of rubies and teak, now known as Mynmaar begins, lies the ancient kingdom of Manipur.
Abutting the Shan peoples and hills of Burma and possessing tremendous commonalities with them, Manipur converted to Hinduism in the 1600’s by royal decree. Today while it is 44% christian in denomination, and 2% mohammedan, the remaining 52% of the population are of the hindu faith. In hindu mythology it was Indra god of the heavens who gifted the winged horse to man, by slashing its wings to remain below. An offshoot of this legend is that of the Manipuri diety Marjing, the horse god who in turn was the inspiration behind the ruler of Manipur creating the sport for his troops. While many believe ancient Persia and Mongolia show evidence in even more ancient history of the sport being played, it certainly died out there to be played in the North West Frontier in Chitral (now with Pakistan), then across the border in India’s Kargil, Drass and Leh districts of Ladakh (in the state of Jammu & Kashmir).
But was here in Manipur that the British tea planters found the most sophisticated version of the sport being played. This year from 22nd Nov to 29th Nov 2017, the 11th Manipur International Polo Tournament took place.
Besides the Indian Polo Association (known as the India A) team, the local team of the MHRPA (known as India B), Morocco, England, USA, and Argentina were all represented.
Certainly the local team were favourites even though they had lost the finals in the previous two years, last year’s winners being Australia. While the US Team whose manager Ed Armstrong has been supporting the event and once again brought a talented and young team including the just turned eighteen Brennan Welles( 2 goals and whose mother Kelly Welles runs a polo school in Maryland),along with captain Jorge Vasquez (2), Nate Berube (2), Nick Johnson (3), Kegan Walsh (3), Team England had Captain George Shelton (1), Ben Eeley (2) Phil Seller (2) and Robin Ormerod (2) Team Morocco featured Bady Kebir, Hicham Zine, Rachid Haddouche and Phillippe Darroux each of one goal except Phillipe who was scratch. India A included an Indian Army team comprising Maj.Narendra Singh (0) Corporals Ram Singh (1) and Vijay Singh (2) and Col T Waraich ( 2) with IJ Singh being reserve at scratch and playing the exhibition for India A
The home team from Manipur (India B) captained by Pradeep Kumar, followed by Jogendra Meitei,L Atangba, P. Ojit and S Dill. George Dill of the United States Polo Association who was present throughout commented on the local lads being at least 3 to 4 goals each! Post tournament, Nicholas Scortichini commented to IJ that since the home team had beaten a 10 goal Argentine team, they were at least 10 goals plus in total handicap.
Argentina was the hot ticket item .The league matches between the stalwarts namely India B (Manipur) , USA and Argentina and also England were fascinating to watch. For Morocco the minnows of the tournament followed by India A, their sheer fighting spirit was amazing to watch.
The entire event was punctuated by amazing opening ceremonies displaying ancient culture, skill at mounted games on horseback, drumming, dancers, music, music festivals and of course the native polo and native equestrian martial displays which included women riders as well.
During the course of the tournament, players visited local festivals, native bazaars, rock music and fashion shows which were of an international class, and banquets hosted by the MHRPA. The President of the Association led by H Deleep Singh with his and the rest of the MHRPA team, did a stellar job in organizing all aspects of the tournament.The arrangements for the guests and their hospitality which did not fall short at any stage of the 8 day plus duration.This included excursions to the beautiful Lohktak Lake . Having landed in Manipur’s Imphal airport on the 21st, the league matches commenced the next day. The Moroccan Team inspite being the lowest handicapped team (3 goals) and being allowed entry as an exception since this was a 10 goal+ tournament, played with tremendous heart. Rachid Haddouche was exceptional. Along with Hicham Zine and Bady Kebir and even Phillipe Darroux, Rachid showed sheer grit and determination and even brilliance. If one did not look at the scoreboard and merely at the play, one would not have found the Moroccan team falling short really! The team was also certainly the most elegantly dressed in the evenings! And they all had a tremendous laugh and gave an encore when watching the televised replays and cheered Phillippe Darroux for scoring one of the two goals in one match! Rachid told IJ who was impressed at the effort made constantly in every game, that “this is how we play”.
While the American team which played brilliantly throughout, lost on overall points inspite of levelling their game with Manipur (India B) which showed the talent they possessed, in the semi finals, the high drama was there for all to see at the final match between Argentina and Manipur (India B). The emotion had been building up. When Manipur (India B) scored the winning goal just as the last chukka was ending, the emotional Manipur team captain leading the victory lap, took his horse at full gallop (the hardy ponies can actually play repeat chukkas) and dropping his reins, twisted his body sidewise to the crowd, bowed his head in homage and folded his hands in the Indian Namaskar , all at the same time (!), to the adulating home crowd. His number one shouted out to the crowd, pointing to the Indian flag on his chest. It was a highly emotional moment for a partisan crowd.
In the evening in a sign of amazing grace, at the social evening and announcement for the winners, the regal Martin Scortichini who was sitting at the front table with his mates stood up to cheer the opposing Captain, Pradeep Kumar as the latter returned from the diaz. Pradeep in typical Manipur fashion bowed and shook Scortichini’s hands. The true spirit of the sport lived on.