On the side of the world’s oldest polo ground in Imphal, one of two large hoardings sends out a strong appeal to the public: “Save Manipuri pony, the original Polo pony.” The other, simply states, “We gave the world the game of Polo.” And they did. Modern polo can be rooted back to Manipur, and is derived from the indigenous game called Sagol Kangjei, originally played with Manipuri ponies. The animals, often considered the ‘pride of Manipur’ , are believed to be the descendents of Samadon Ayangba, the winged steed of Lord Marjing, one of the many deities in Manipuri mythology. They are warrior horses, among the five equine breeds in the country.
Today, these animals, once revered as gods, are on the brink of extinction. As per the Quinquennial Livestock Census of India, conducted after every five years, the population of Manipuri pony has been dwindling since 2003, from a total of 1,898 ponies to only 1,011 in 2012. The census for 2017 is yet to
30 Deaths in 12 Months
As per a random survey conducted by Manipuri Pony Society (MPS) in 2014, with the support from Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), Manipur Equestrian Association (MEA) and all the polo clubs and some pony owners of Manipur, there are about 97 ponies at the temporary Pony sanctuary at Lamphelpat. “The four-month-long exercise could not reach some remote areas of the state. However, we could make a rough judgment that the population of the ponies would be less than 600 at the point of time,” says N Ibungochoubi, MPS secretary, “But the rate of death is much higher than the rate of birth and we fear that today the number of ponies must be even lesser than what we had presumed,” he said.
Road accidents and food poisoning are the two biggest factors for undesirably high fatality rate of the ponies. Rapid urbanisation has caused the natural habitats (grazing fields) of the ponies to dwindle, and they come out to the roads. Here, they survive on the garbage and little patches of grazing ground left in and around valley. This leads to multiple diseases which gradually kills the breed. The MPS has recorded around 30 deaths of young colts in 2017 alone.
Earlier the Manipur government allotted two temporary sanctuaries for the ponies: one at Lamphelpat, Imphal West and the other in Marjing foothills, Imphal East. “The Lamphelpat’s sanctuary remained flooded throughout the rainy season while there was a shortage of fodder at the Heingang sanctuary—thus driving out ponies to the streets a usual,” said Homen Thangjam, a member of MHRPA.
A New Statue
The government declared the ‘Manipuri Pony’ as an endangered breed in 2013. Subsequently, in a bid to protect the horse breed, the government introduced the Manipuri Pony Conservation and Development Policy in 2016. However, the policy has failed to achieve anything substantial.
The MPS and other like-minded groups reportedly have been urging the government to demarcate natural habitats such as Lamphelpat and other favourable grounds in all the districts of Manipur and conserve them as open and free grazing grounds for the local animal including ponies.
K. Dhanachandra, secretary Manipuri Pony Owner and Players Association (MPOPA), said there are 16 clubs, comprising pony owners from different part of the states. But the clubs are getting no financial assistance from the government at the moment. “Unlike cattle, rearing ponies is not a lucrative business, the owners are doing so just for the love of the sports and the animal,” he said.
Despite the odds, constant efforts are made by NGOs like MPS, MHRPA and pony enthusiasts to popularise the game of polo, with the intention to preserve the endangered species. There are about 15 pony-related events organised by the MHRPA such as the International Polo Tournament, Governor’s Cup, State Equestrian Championship during the polo season from October to March before the onset of monsoon. These tournaments keep the tradition of the pony alive.
It is against this backdrop that the Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh has recently announced to develop Marjing Pony sanctuary, as a tourist destination where a 120-feet-high statue of the Manipuri pony will be erected, drawing flak from many quarters. “After all these years, when we thought the government had finally come to its senses, it is giving more emphasis on developing a statue by investing crores but not for the living ponies. What could be more disappointing than that?” said K Dhanachandra MPOPA secretary.