When you hear about Polo, the quick mental image is of royalty, large palaces and grounds, strings of meticulously groomed ponies, pretty ladies in hats, toppling crystal glasses, men with cigars, and chaperons in waiting.
Perhaps a scene from the 1890s, fast forward to now and the game still has the same old charm, but with the new age twist. Polo, the ancient sport, has seen many changes in its time. Historic records state that it started somewhere in Persia and made its way to other countries. Once the Indian Royalty fancied the sport and made it into their favorite pastime, they passed it on to the British thereby promoting the ‘horseback hockey’ to the Empire.
India, taunted as the birthplace of ‘modern’ polo, has a huge legacy, horse culture and the hunger for adrenaline gushing sport that fits well with the game. Over time, the rules of the game have been tweaked, made more relevant making it faster, friendlier and accommodating. The sport still possess the age-old bonhomie, true sportsmanship and the solid bond between the horse and the player.
Typically, the game is played with four men team competing for glory. Throw in two mounted umpires who, like soccer, are constantly chasing the action. Horses galloping at top speed of about 40 miles an hour, zipping past each other make the ground shutter. The ‘bump offs’ loud enough to be mistaken as car crash and in-field chatter to compete with a mild riot.
Legends of the game will tell you it’s mainly a sport of horses, well nearly 80% of it. An exceptional player would perform badly on a poor mount in contrast an average player could perform to exceptional skills on a good pony.
The game is basic enough, only that you follow an imaginary ‘right of way’ which zig-zags across the field, changing every time the ball is hit. Players try to snatch the ball off you without crossing that line. Any dangerous play will result in a penalty and when possible, you bump off the opponent with fierce force, but a cheeky smile, implying ‘I got the right stuff’. Players will lean forward, go backward, sideways or any possible way that they can, just to take possession of the ball or to the very least, let the opponent lose it.
Once known as the ‘Mecca of polo’, Jodhpur has had a long love affair with the game. The rulers were known to be one of the best, and the legacy supported by the infrastructure is a perfect spot for the new wave in polo rush. The royal support, led by none other than ‘Bapji’, Maharaja of Jodhpur, just adds to the glamor and appeal. Polo is truly a passion sport, laced with ‘once-bitten-never-shy-syndrome’; it’s fast, furious, and skilful enough to make your heart beat faster or skip a beat, even.
It transforms your lifestyle; before you know it’s you’re adjusting your priorities and trying your best to include polo in any way you can. And, yes, it includes shipping your kit with luggage while going on a family vacation, looking up for polo clubs and arranging to play even just a ‘chukker’.
Like any other serious sport, it brings a balance and teaches you discipline. You learn to work in a team, develop a sixth sense, learning, understanding and reading a horse – a 500 Kg, selfminded beast. Polo does have a rapport of kit-lose players, with funny walk and late night glamor parties. But that comes with early morning rides, strenuous stick & ball sessions and numerous hours on horseback.
Several clubs have mushroomed up across the landscape making it possible for newbies to take on the sport. Variants of the game making it more accessible for urban dweller where large grounds is only but a historic piece of information.
The new rise in wealth and acceptance of polo as a cunning marketing platform has seen numerous brands and patrons jumping in for their pot of gold. Providing much needed support to clubs, players and the sport.
Jodhpur, being the leading season of the country, has seen this phenomenon come to life. Having produced some legendary players in its time, the new comers have their task cut out but with all this support, pumped with passion, the new chukker of Indian polo has just begun.
Ankur Mishra is Editor-in-Chief, Jodhpur Polo Magazine.