The game first played in Persia (Iran) at dates given from the 5th century BC, or much earlier, to the 1st century AD and originated there, polo was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen, who played it with as many as 100 to a side, it was a miniature battle. In time polo became an Iranian national sport played normally by the nobility. Women as well as men played the game, as indicated by references to the queen and her ladies engaging King Khosrow II Parviz and his courtiers in the 6th century AD. Certainly Persian literature and art give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity. Ferdowsi, the famed Iranian poet-historian, gives a number of accounts of royal polo tournaments in his 9th century epic, Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). In the earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticizes an international match between Turanian force and the followers of Siyâvash, a legendary Iranian prince from the earliest centuries of the Empire; the poet is eloquent in his praise of Siyâvash’s skills on the polo field. Ferdowsi also tells of Emperor Shapur II of the Sassanid dynasty of the 4th century who learned to play polo when he was only seven years old. Naqsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan is in fact a polo field which was built by king Abbas I in 17th century.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan is the site of a medieval royal polo field.
Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Turkic Emperor of North India, ruled as an emperor for only four years, from 1206 to 1210 but died accidentally in 1210 playing polo. While he was playing a game of polo on horseback (also called chougan in Persia), his horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle. He was buried near the Anarkali bazaar in Lahore (which is now in Pakistan). Aibak’s son Aram, died in 1211 CE , so Shams-ud-din Iltutmish, another ex-slave of Turkic ancestry who was married to Aibak’s daughter, succeeded him as Sultan of Delhi.
From Persia, in medieval times polo spread to the Byzantines (who called it tzykanion), and after the Muslim conquests to the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties of Egypt and the Levant, whose elites favored it above all other sports. Notable sultans such as Saladin and Baybars were known to play it and encourage it in their court. Polo sticks were features on the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.
A Persian miniature from the poem Guy-o Chawgân (“the Ball and the Polo-mallet”) during Safavid dynasty of Persia, which shows Persian courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, 1546 AD
Later on Polo was passed from Persia to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent and China, where it was very popular during the Tang Dynasty and frequently depicted in paintings and statues. Valuable for training cavalry, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings. The name polo is said to have been derived from the Tibetan word “pulu”, meaning ball.
India and Britain
The modern game of polo, though formalized and popularized by the British, is derived from Manipur (now a state in India) where the game was known as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. It was the anglicised form of the last, referring to the wooden ball which was used, that was adopted by the sport in its slow spread to the west. The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in Assam, India, in 1834.There is also a polo ground in chooto jalanga (irongmara/dwarbond).
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 (called Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (called Mukna Kangjei). 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. These may indicate an origin earlier than the historical records of Manipur, which go back to the 1st Century A.D.
Old polo field in Imphal, Manipur
In Manipur, polo 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 score simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players are also permitted to carry the ball, though that allows opponents to physically tackle players when they do so. The sticks are made of cane and the balls are made from the roots of bamboo. Colorful cloth pom-poms dangle at sensitive and vulnerable spots around the anatomy of the ponies to protect them. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.
In Manipur, the game was not merely a “rich” game but was played even by commoners who owned a pony. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort. Here they played 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 pologround is contained in the royal chronicle “Cheitharol Kumbaba” starting from AD 33. Lieutenant Sherer, the father of modern polo visited the state and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India visited the state in 1901 and measured the pologround as 225 yards long and 110 yards wide. The oldest royal polo square is the 16th century Gilgit Polo Field, Pakistan, while the highest polo ground in the world, Shandur, located in district Chitral, Pakistan at 4307 meters (14,000 ft).A traditional polo tournament between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit takes place every year in July. Maj Cobb from British Raj was a polo fan and he used to come to Shandur for playing polo on the invitation of Mehtar Chitral in moon light. The oldest polo club in the world still in existence is the Calcutta Polo Club (1862).
In 1862 the first polo club, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Shearer. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Military officers imported the game to Britain in the 1860s. The establishment of polo clubs throughout England and western Europe followed after the formal codification of rules. The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England in 1834. 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.