Concern over dwindling number of rare Indian polo ponies

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Media captionAnbarasan Ethirajan explores the link between Manipur's ponies and polo

The game of polo is often referred to as the game of kings, combining horsemanship with speed and stamina. The modern game originated in the tiny north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, but is now under threat, the BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan reports from the state capital Imphal.

Polo is still popular in Manipur, mainly because of the state's rare breed of polo ponies.

Manipuri ponies are considered to be descendants of Asian wild horses and have been recognised as one of the five indigenous horse breeds of India.

They are smaller than other breeds - but well loved for their stamina, speed and ability to survive in harsh weather conditions.

However, conservationists say Manipuri ponies are now so far in decline that they are critically endangered.

This is bad news for a state where horses and ponies are revered.

Streams of devotees

A visit to the temple of Lord Marjing, perched on a small hill outside Imphal, provides clear evidence of this. It is probably one of the few temples in the world dedicated to horses.

The equestrian theme is everywhere - the main deity, Iboudhou Marjing, is the God of the horses. He sits on a winged pony, surrounded by small marble ponies.

Manipuris believe that by praying at this temple, they can be blessed with prosperity, good health and virility.

Image caption Conservationists say Manipuri ponies are now so far in decline that they are critically endangered
Image caption The temple of Lord Marjing is dedicated to horses

The priests at the temple say it has been there for centuries and attracts streams of devotees every day. Thousands of people throng to it on Manipuri New Year's day.

Until a few decades ago, thousands of ponies roamed around the region. The Meitis, one of the major communities in the region, excelled in horsemanship and were even able to tame them.

Manipuri legend says that Lord Marjing, the chieftain of the Chenglei tribe, introduced the game of sagol kangjei or horse hockey, widely regarded as the predecessor of modern day polo.

Image caption The ponies have been recognised as one of the five indigenous horse breeds of India
Image caption Owners of the semi-wild ponies often allow them to roam in public areas

To locals, the ponies even played a crucial role in Manipuri history.

With Myanmar to the east, China to the north, and the neighbouring Indian states of Nagaland and Assam, Manipuri rulers in the past often found themselves fighting battles.

"Over the centuries, we have defended our territory from invaders, won battles and conquered land with the help of these ponies. That's why they occupy a special place in Manipuri society," says Ibungochoubi Ningthoukhongjam, secretary of the Manipuri Pony Society.

When there was no war, Manipuris used the ponies to play sagol kangjei. It is not clear when exactly Manipuris started playing the game but some records indicate that it was as early as the first Century.

Image caption Manipuri Pony Society Secretary Ibungochoubi Ningthoukhongjam says that the state's ponies are the original polo ponies of the world
Image copyright National Army Museum
Image caption Lieutenant Joseph Ford Sherer - seen in this 1861 photograph in Manipur - has been described as the father of polo

The wetlands of Manipur provided a natural habitat for the ponies. Because they are semi-wild, their owners let their animals roam in the common wetlands. They were herded back as and when there was an occasion, like war, rituals or to play sagol kangjei.

The traditional game attracted the attention of British colonial rulers in the 19th Century, who were fascinated by the horsemanship of the riders and the speed and endurance of the ponies.

There are many theories regarding how polo as a game evolved over the centuries. Several polo historians have given credit to Lt Joseph Ford Sherer of the British army's Sylhet Light Infantry for transforming the traditional sagol kangjei into modern polo sometime around 1859.

From then on, polo caught the imagination of the nobility and the British army who took the game to the west.

"Though polo has gone through various changes over the decades, Manipuri ponies are the original polo ponies and Manipur is the birthplace of modern polo," asserts Mr Ibungochoubi.

There are polo clubs in several towns and villages across the state today. It is common to see young boys in the village riding ponies as a past-time. In fact, polo is more popular than cricket in Manipur.

But the famed ponies are in danger of extinction. A survey conducted in 2003 showed that there were about 1,800 ponies in the state. But the number has now dwindled to about 500, triggering alarm among polo enthusiasts and pony lovers.

Loss of grazing land, urbanisation and encroachment of wetlands are considered to be among the key reasons for the decline.

Following an outcry, the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association has set up a pony breeding centre outside Imphal and the state government is giving them additional land. The government is also planning to set up another pony conservation centre near Lord Marjing temple.

Conservationists warn that Manipuri ponies have now become critically endangered and without a massive effort, they could trot into extinction.

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