"Let other people play other things — the king of game is still the
game of kings"
This verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in
Gilgit, north of Kashmir, near the fabled silk route from China to
the West. In one ancient sentence it epitomizes the feelings of many
polo players today.
Polo is arguably one of the most complex of games in the world. The
precise origin of polo is obscure and undocumented and there is
ample evidence of the game's place in the history of Asia. No one
knows where or when stick first met ball after the horse was
domesticated by the ancient Iranian (Aryan) tribes of Central Asia
before their migration to Iranian plateau; but it seems likely that
as the use of light cavalry spread throughout Iranian plateau, Asia
Minor, China and the Indian subcontinent, so did this rugged game on
However, many scholars believe that polo
really originated among the
Iranian tribes  sometime before Darius the Great (521–485 BC) and
his cavalry forged the Second Iranian Empire, the Achaemenid
dynasty. Certainly it is Persian literature and art that give us the
richest accounts of polo in antiquity. The first recorded polo match
occurred in roughly 600 BC between the Turkomans and Persian, with
victory going to the Turkomans.
Ferdowsi, the most famous of Iranian poet-historian, gives a number
of later accounts of royal polo tournaments in his 9th century epic,
Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). Some believe that the Chinese (the
Mongols) were the first to try their hands at the game, but in the
earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticizes an international match
between Turanian force and the followers of Siyâvash, a legendary
Persian 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 Sâpour-II of Sasanian dynasty of the
4th Century AD, who learned to play polo when he was only seven
Polo was also popular among other nations, including China, where it
was the royal pastime for many centuries. The Chinese most probably
learned the game from the Iranian nobles who sought refuge in
Chinese courts after the invasion of the Iranian Empire by the
Arabs, or possibly by some Indian tribes who were taught by the
Iranians. The polo stick appears on Chinese royal coats of arms and
the game was part of the court life in the golden age of Chinese
classical culture under Ming-Hung, the Radiant Emperor, who as an
enthusiastic patron of equestrian activities.
For more than 20 centuries polo remained a favourite of the rulers
of Asia, who played the game or were its patrons. Their Queens
played, as did the nobility and the mounted warriors.
Polo for non-Iranians was the nearest equivalent to a national sport
in those times, from Japan to Egypt, from India to the Byzantine
Empire. As the great Eastern empires collapsed, however, so
disappeared the glittering court life of which polo was so important
a part, and the game itself was preserved only in remote villages.
Introduction to the Occident
Polo came to the west via Manipur, a northeastern state in India.
The Guinness Book of Records in its 1991 edition (page 288) traces
the origins of the game to Manipur, circa 3100 BC, where it was
known as Sagol Kangjei. According to historical accounts, one
British government official stationed in Manipur (then a princely
state) during the late 19th century wrote an account of the sport,
and thus its popularity spread.
The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England, in
1869 after reading an account of the game in The Field magazine. 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.
The sport became popular amongst European nobility, but during the
early part of the 20th century, under the leadership of Harry Payne
Whitney, polo changed to become a high-speed sport in the United
States, differing from the game in England, where it involved short
passes to move the ball toward the opposition's goal. Whitney and
his teammates used the fast break, sending long passes downfield to
riders who had broken away from the pack at a full gallop.
The Contemporary Sport
Polo is now an active sport in 77 countries, and although its tenure
as an Olympic sport was limited to 1900–1939, in 1998 the
International Olympic Committee recognised it as a sport with a bona
fide international governing body, the Federation of International
Polo is, however, played professionally in only a few countries,
notably Argentina, England, Pakistan,India, and the United States.
Argentina dominates the professional sport, its polo team has been
the uninterrupted world champion since 1949 and is today the source
of most of the world's 10 goal (i.e., top-rated) players. It is also
the source of the Raza Polo Argentino, the only purpose-bred polo
pony in general international demand. In the world of polo,
Argentina's Heguy family, are to polo what the Barrymore family is
The U.S. is unique in possessing a professional women's polo league,
the United States Women's Polo Federation, which was founded in
2000. The sixteen-team league plays across the country.
The modern sport has had difficulty grappling with the traditional
social and economic exclusivity associated with a game that is
inevitably expensive when played at a serious level. On the one
hand, many polo athletes genuinely desire to expand broad public
participation in the sport, both as an end in itself and to increase
the standard of play. On the other hand, many members of polo clubs,
particularly social or non-playing members, are attracted to the
sport precisely because of its aura of wealth and its remove from
Nevertheless, the popularity of polo has grown steadily since the
1980s, and its future appears to have been greatly strengthened by
its return as a varsity sport at universities across the world.
History of Polo courtesy of