There is a general belief that the British invented polo. Nothing can be further from the truth. Polo is probably the oldest team sport in the world: historians have recorded that the first matches were played in ancient Persia, currently Iran, more than 2,500 years ago.
It is believed that polo originated among rival tribes in Central Asia and was then embraced as a training method for the elite cavalry and the highest dignitaries. Adopted by monarchs and emperors as the most noble of pastimes, it became known as ‘the sport of the Kings’.
In medieval times, in the period between the fall of the Mughal dynasty and the establishment of the British rule, polo survived only in India, in the remote mountains of Gilgit, Chitral, Ladakh, and Manipur. But it was not until the arrival of the British, during the 19th century that it was rediscovered and presented to the rest of the world.
It all began around 1858, when two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major G. J. Sherer witnessed an entertaining activity called Sagol Kangjei, very popular among the locals in the region of Manipur. Both officers were captivated by the experience and quickly introduced it among their mates. A few years later, in 1862, the Calcutta Polo Club was founded. Considered the world´s oldest polo organization still in operation, it recently celebrated its 150th anniversary.
It was there that the game was organized, and the rules of modern polo were established, before the sport spread like wildfire throughout England, subsequently reaching more than 80 countries. The Calcutta Polo Club, whose atmosphere has not changed since its early days, is located in the middle of the city’s racetrack or hippodrome, which has excellent views of the Victoria Memorial and the Vidyasagar Setu.
The playing field is named after Pat Williamson, President of the club in the early 1950’s and a great promoter of the sport of Kings. This place has witnessed the most famous and spectacular polo tournaments in the world, such as the World Championship for the Ezra Cup, the first and oldest, in addition to the Carmichael Cup and the Stewart Cup. The Ezra Cup is named after Sir David Ezra, a business tycoon and Jewish leader in Calcutta, who became a patron of polo in the city. These tournaments are still in vogue and continue to be celebrated with the same enthusiasm and spirit of competition of yesteryear.
In Calcutta, polo has always enjoyed the patronage of royalty. The names of illustrious figures such as the Maharaja of Burdwan, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Nizam of Hyderabad, and more recently the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Sultan of Brunei, appear on the list of stalwarts of the Club and of the sport.
Currently, the President of the Calcutta Polo Club is Keshav Bangur, a well-known Indian businessman, without whom the Club would not be what it is today because, in 1998, it was about to close its doors and lose the title of “world´s oldest polo club”. Thanks to Bangur‘s management style and the personal commitment, the Calcutta Polo Club is in tip-top shape. Now the club offers all kinds of experiences to aficionados of this noble competition sport, including riding lessons for the neophytes, initiation into the game, lease and sale of well-trained polo horses and private classes.
Since polo is a team sport that forms character, it is not unusual to see a high number of young people coming through the facility. “In addition to being a healthy exercise, polo instills in players the habit of selflessly working for other members of their team, while helping them with vital decisions in their lives. Those qualities are universal attributes of great leaders,” explains Bangur.
Furthermore, polo is an impressive and brilliant spectacle, especially when high-level teams, composed of the best players in the world, play the game. Unlike any other game, equestrian sports demonstrate a unique understanding between man and beast.
If you ever you visit the captivating and historic city of Calcutta during the summer, make sure to visit to the Calcutta Polo Club. There you can enjoy a tournament of the most spectacular of equestrian sports in a setting with plenty of history and tradition: the world´s oldest polo club. ■