While the exact date of the first polo match is unknown, in ancient Persia around 600BC it was called chaugán, which refers to the polo mallet. It was played with hundreds of players to a side and was designed to mimic war, giving soldiers ample practice time. Just like archery, swordplay, and falconry, polo became an excellent pastime to teach young warriors and nobility the rigors of war. As armies all around Asia began using the horse in battle, polo became THE way of training. Several stories from polo’s history stand out as part of it’s legacy:
- An anecdotal tale of Alexander the Great tells of a Persian King named Darius (370-330 BC) who refused to pay Alexander a bribe for safety. When Alexander the Great threatened to attack, King Darius sent him a chaugán stick and ball, a tongue-in-cheek reference Alexander’s immaturity and inexperience in war and diplomacy. Alexander’s reply was, “The ball is the Earth and I am the stick.”
- In Iran, it became the national sport that women enjoyed in as well. In the 6th century AD, it was recorded that the Queen of Iran was brazen enough to challenge the King at the time, King Khosrow II Parvis, to a match.
- Manipur, a state in India, became the ancient headquarters for polo. It was considered one of three forms of hockey the country played: field hockey, wrestling hockey, and polo and was called kan-jai-bazéé. Although the oldest polo grounds in Manipur were dated to around 33 AD, local rituals to “Marjing”, a winged-pony God of Polo, and his son, “Khori-Phaba”, the polo-playing God of Sports indicate that polo has a much older origin in India.
- In Manipur, it was not just a pastime for the nobility or cavalry. The Royal Polo grounds, within the ramparts of the Kangla Fort, is called Manung Kangjei Bung, or “Inner Polo Ground.” Public games were, and still are, held at the Mapan Kangjei Bung, or “Outer Polo Grounds”.
- In the 9th century, the Iranian historian Dinvari wrote of polo:
“Polo requires a great deal of exercise,” “If a polo stick breaks during a game it is a sign of inefficiency,” and “A player should strictly avoid using strong language and should be patient and temperate.”
- In the 11th century, Omar Khayyam, a Persian, used polo as a metaphor for God’s reign over earth:
“In the cosmic game of polo, you are the ball
The mallet’s left and right becomes your call
He who causes your movements, your rise and fall
He is the one, the only one, who knows it all.”
- Polo in the Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD) was a very different sport than the one we know now. The game consisted of two 30-minute chukkers, riders used only one horse, and the game was only stopped for serious injury. If the ball went out of bounds, it was immediately thrown back in by a spectator. Fouls did not exist and every man played for himself. This style of play, combined with the stone goal-posts meant that serious injury and death were common place on the polo field.
- In 1210, Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Turkish Emperor of Northern India, died during a polo match when his horse flipped over backwards and he was impaled on the pommel of his saddle.
- In the 13th century, poet Nizami Ganjavi wrote an epic love story based around polo matches between King Khosrow II Parviz and his courtiers and the beautiful Shirin and her ladies-in-waiting. In this ancient love story, King Khosrow kills his rival, Farhad, for the affections of Princess Shirin. Khosrow embarks on long journeys, physically and spiritually, before returning to his love, marrying her, and baring a single son with her. His son eventually murders him, and his wife ends up committing suicide over the body of her dead husband. This epic love story influenced many Persian authors that followed Nizami Ganjavi.
- In the 15th century it was called kan-jai-bazéé (sagol kangjei) and was popular in the Himalayas.
- While the sport was growing and spreading across the known world, the word for the sport that we use now, “polo,” is derived from the Tibetan word “pulu”, their word for ball.
What other stories have you heard about polo’s history? How do you think understanding polo’s ancient history and development help you as a player today? Share your comments below!