Ed Armstrong Brings First USPA Teams to Manipur!
AN AMERICAN YATRA
By L. Somi Roy, Huntre! Equine
One time, six or seven years ago, I had driven down from the Appalachian Mountains into Lexington, Kentucky, when my friend Evelyn Knight told me she could introduce me to Ed Armstrong of the United States Polo Association (USPA). We had been talking about the white fenced rolling green of the breeding farms of the Bluegrass State around us. I had vented my frustration at not being able to get the government of Manipur to move beyond sweet talk to provide a home for the street ponies of Manipur. I thought American polo might help. Manipuri polo was weak and those I had talked to could not do much.
A mild how-about notion has increasingly become a preoccupation since my first visit to my homeland after almost twenty years away in New York. Not being a particularly political or activist kind of person, much less an animal rights or environmentalist one, I thought polo might help in my efforts. Here I was, a native of Manipur, the birthplace of modern polo, living in the superpower with the largest polo association in the world. So why not American polo in Manipur?
From that initial introduction grew a friendship and an American Yatra, a journey that yoked polo and pony in a cause of sports and preservation. Ed recalled reading about Manipur as a polo-mad boy in Massachusetts. As Manipur is pretty much a blank spot in the American mind, I needed to show first rather than just talk, I approached Bill Cooke, a fellow museum curator and the director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. We agreed we should fill an important gap and add Manipuri polo and pony to the permanent exhibit at his museum on The Horse in Sports.
Over the next two years I shuttled between my home in New York, Imphal, and Lexington, near where I was working on a film project. With the ready help of then Governor Gurbachan Jagat of Manipur, through the kind offices of his Private Secretary, my cousin Dr. R.K. Nimai Singh, we had Khelen Maisnam, erstwhile captain of the Manipuri polo team, to prepare a set of authentic polo costumes and gear. By the time the consignment arrived at Bill's museum, Ed was interested enough to come to check out its contents. As he tested a swing on the strange polo sticks of cane that Khelen had included, I asked if he and the USPA might send a team to play polo in Manipur. He sure could!
When Team USPA came to play at the Manipur International Polo Tournament organized by the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association during Manipur Tourism's Sangai Festival in November 2013, it was the first international team that came with a researched handicap, of 9 goals, for Manipur. Nothing was more telling of this landmark step the USPA instituted for Manipur than the tournament's opening night dinner. As the smartly uniformed and emblazoned American team, handsome, young, and athletic, lined up at the reception, the German team, which had played in Manipur before, seethed among themselves, Why didn't you tell us? We could also have brought a team like this, turned out like them! They said among themselves.
The adventure that Ed and I had embarked upon had found its first calling: helping Manipur's polo community where we saw it needed help. Huntre! Equine, as we came to be called, would provide value added services to Manipuri polo.
The next step was an exploration of international polo tourism. And then, women's polo.
Polo Yatra as Tourism
Polo Yatra, Huntre! Equine’s international women’s polo initiative, has two objectives. The first is the development and promotion of women's polo in India with Manipur as its center, but fanning out to the rest of the country, like Jaipur and Hyderabad. The second is the development of and promotions of tourism in Manipur using polo as the vector. Tourism is one of the priorities because of the foundational and presenting sponsorship by Manipur Tourism. Starting in 2018, it also has the support of Incredible India! in New Delhi which currently underwrites the travel of the international teams. It was gratifying then that Manipur Tourism received a national tourism innovation award for Polo Yatra connecting Manipur and Jaipur in 2016 with their shared passion for polo.
Our approach to polo tourism, now with Emma Horne Travel, bespoke travel specialists of London and New Delhi as Huntre!Adventures is to design for a small but vital clientele of polo and equine enthusiasts. Tourism is pretty unavoidable as industrially underdeveloped Manipur and the rest of the North East Region of India open up to the rest of the world. Moreover, under the Act East Policy of India, Manipur is emerging as the gateway to Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar. I worked with Gautam Mukhopadhyay, the Ambassador of India in Yangon, to set up chartered flights from Myanmar to Imphal for the Sangai Festival when the men's tournament is also played. We expect Manipur and NER to be the next global frontier with the ongoing democratization of Myanmar.
But as a social enterprise based in Manipur, with partners in Mumbai and New York and Massachusetts, we see tourism beyond the incoming visitors and tourism dollars. One sees tourism as both boon and bane, as last year’s demonstrations in Venice and Barcelona attest. The exotic character and draw of Manipur is undeniable, but a primary concern is not to turn it into a tourism-dependent economy that impacts the culture and the people negatively. The question is, How will it impact the host people and culture who stay on after the tourist has gone back home. And to develop tourism, the first change has to come locally, where the hosts have to understand what it is about this culture that is going to the unique selling point. And for this the people of Manipur have to know their culture: a challenge with all young generations in this emerging globalized world. If we in Manipur do not know ourselves, how will we know what we can show our visitors? That knowledge will determine what it is that we show the tourist. Therefore, those aspects of the culture have to be conserved in order to be presented without catering solely to the vulgarizing influence of market tourism.
Polo Yatra therefore builds on activities beyond polo and entertainment events. They have included unique unticketed events that show the real culture Manipur: the 108 dishes of the Pranalika feast at Shree Shree Govindaji Temple, a traditional cooking class, a ritual women's choir of the Jalakeli at the royal temple of the Palace, visits to Allied as well as Japanese World War 2 cemeteries, guided tours of Kangla Fort, a traditional dinner at a Naga village, a Manipuri wedding, and so on.
And always, for players and tourists alike, prayers at the shrine of Lord Marjing the polo god in Heingang Village, site of the preserve for the Manipuri Pony under construction. For our basic philosophy is that tourism and conservation must go hand in hand.
The Women of Manipur
The notion of filling the void of women's polo in India came about when a pretty young lady served tea to Ed and me at a game. A polo player! How about playing with American girls? She almost dropped the tea in her excitement. We will start practicing tomorrow! She exclaimed. It became a real idea when Steve Armour, Governor at Large of the USPA, saw its possibility when he came on a tour operated by Ed Armstrong's Huntre Adventures to watch the men play the next year and developed the idea in the US.
It was really quite remarkable, what the Manipuri women were doing, we discovered. They had fielded teams before in the state tournaments. Polo not being a very gender bound sport, there was even a Kenyan ladies team that came to play when the first international tournament took place in 1992. But what we thought we needed was a women's only event. A complaint I had heard in Manipur, and indeed, all over India, was that the girls never get enough games to play, never get the best horses. They were always an addition, a sidelight, a curtain raiser. Steve, Ed and I thought a women's tournament would be a strategic development for Indian women's polo; another value added service that Huntre! Equine would undertake. And thus was born the Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament in 2016, the first and only women’s polo tournament in India, and now an annual event.
We certainly had the raw material, for Manipur is always impressively rich when it comes to sports and performance. A tiny powerhouse of sports – We come second only to the Armed Forces in the national games, and the Armed Forces is all Manipuris, Governor Jagat remarked wryly to me one time – Manipur accounted for about two-thirds of the women polo players in the whole of India. Thinking on it, it is not surprising. After all, this is where the British took the game from in the mid-19th century to turn it into what has become modern polo. Distinctively and uniquely, here it is not the Game of Kings, though Manipur's monarchs during the course of the kingdom's history, but the Game of the People. Egalitarian, village-based, popular, Manipuri women's polo rests on the fabled power of Manipuri women, confident, and outspoken. Whether in politics, culture, or the economy, women in Manipur are at the forefront. Their control of the state's dominant cottage and retail sectors, has resulted in the traditional markets being manned by women, so to speak.
Yet for all that, women's polo in Manipur is weak. They need their own discrete arena to develop and grow, we felt. And then, who will they play with? So Huntre! Equine's women's polo initiative centers on Manipur, but reaches out to women players all over the country. So when Steve brought Team USPA Women to Manipur, I reached out to Jaipur, the Crown Jewel of Indian Polo, or as its Princess Diya Kumari said to me, pithily and charmingly, Many places play polo but Jaipur plays only polo. It turned out that even Jaipur did not have enough women players.
Polo Yatra: 2016 and 2017
The 1st Manipur Statehood Day Women's Polo Tournament was held in January 2016, with the finals on January 21, Manipur's Statehood Day. Huntre! Equine decided to help the state’s other polo association, the older, struggling All Manipur Polo Association (AMPA), in its mission to support polo in Manipur, and handed it the task of organizing the women’s polo tournament.
Manipur fielded three teams for a mixed tournament of four teams. Each was led by one of the American players – Team USPA Captain Cristina Fernandez, Tiamo Hudspeth, Carly Persano, and Julia Smith. Then it was off to Jaipur. Two players from Manipur, Salam Sumita and Thoudam Tanna, with their coach Khelen Maisnam, travelled with 30 Sankirtan dancing drummers added by Nidhi Tripathi, Commissioner of Manipur Tourism, to Jaipur. Together with Manisha Malhotra Pattu and Avshreya Pratap Rudy, the Indian contingent played with their American counterparts. An exhibition game Polo Yatra humorously titled Cowgirls v Gopis took Jaipur's polo community by storm before the finals of the Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Cup named after the late monarch and father of Princess Diya Kumari.
The connection grew into Polo Yatra 2017, an international polo journey threading powerhouse giant US to tiny birthplace of modern polo Manipur and to glorious royal Jaipur at the impressive ground of Vikram Singh Rathore in Mundota, and, reaching southward, to Hyderabad, the hi-tech city of Google and the Nizam of yore. Steve brought back another Team USPA, this time led by Anna Winslow, with Stephanie Massey, and Audry Persano joining her sister Carly Persano. The young and sleek Nasr Polo of Hyderabad was the host. This time the Indian contingent was composed of Hyderabadi Chaiyya Vaibhase from the Hyderabad Riding and Polo Club, young Rajvi Rao and, from New Delhi, Sonia Jabbar.
Polo Yatra 2017 added another dimension in Imphal, when a ladies’ team from Hurlingham Polo Association joined Team USPA Women put together by Steve, for a three cornered 2nd Manipur Statehood Day Women's Polo Tournament, presented once again by Manipur Tourism, this time led by N. Ashok. English pro player Annabel McNaught Davies came by way of Buenos Aires to lead the team composed of Charlotte Sweeney, Maime Powell, and Sarah Hughes. A hard fought tournament with drama and stunning wins, Team USPA prevailed.
Polo Yatra 2018: Building a Home for Indian Women’s Polo
The takeaway from the experience of the first two Polo Yatras was that the long term mission of Huntre! Equine to support, develop and promote women's polo in India needed to give Indian women’s polo a home. The conceptual framework of Polo Yatra was honed to build just that, in Manipur. The yatra started courtesy of Incredible India! of the Ministry of Tourism in New Delhi. Players the US, Australia and Kenya gathered in Imphal for the 3rd Manipur Statehood Day Tournament, again sponsored and presented by Manipur Tourism, and organized by AMPA.
What distinguished Polo Yatra 2018 was not just that it was Team Kenya this time that stopped in Jaipur for a game and the Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Polo Tournament on the way or that Prashant K. Singh, Principal Secretary for Tourism for the Government of Manipur agreed to up the 3rd Manipur Statehood Day Tournament to feature three international teams to develop the tournament into full field league tournament. Manipur fielded two teams: Team Marjing and Team Thangjing and in a first, the Indian Polo Association (IPA) fielded their first women’s team to bring to total number of teams to six.
The tournament also finally arrived at a mixed goal handicap of +2 for the visiting teams. The six teams played league in two groups, one with USA, Australia, and Thangjing Manipur, and the other with Kenya, IPA, and Marjing Manipur. Over four days and seven games, from January 17-21, the tournament ended with a closely fought finals between group leaders USA and Kenya.
Team Kenya came from behind to pip Team USA 5-4. The Americans led with three quick goals in the opening chukka. Handicap 3 player, Marissa Wells, notched a field goal hat-trick. In the second chukka, Team Kenya captain and handicap 2 player, Tiva Gross, slotting in a penalty to cut the deficit and followed up with a beautiful goal from the center of the field to bring the score to 2-3 at the break. Wells took her tally to four by scoring another field goal for Team USA but Imogen Voorspuy struck for Kenya to bring the score to 3-4. In the dramatic last chukka, Nikki Barlow made it 4-4, and with 20 seconds to go, Kaila Millar sealed Team Kenya's victory with an under-the-neck-shot.
Team Kenya was awarded the BSE Cup, a custom made trophy of bell metal based on a traditional royal wedding gift called a kaosel. Gifted by Ashish Chauhan, Managing Director and CEO of BSE, formerly the Bombay Stock Exchange, it was presented to the team by Governor Dr. Najma Heptulla of Manipur together. Her Excellency also presented the Runners Up trophy, also of kaosel design, to Team USA.
In a gesture to the Manipuri Pony and in recognition of the plight this Endangered Breed, both teams donated their cash awards of Rs 60,000 and Rs. 40,000 for the preservation of the Manipuri Pony to the Ibuthou Marjing Khubam Kanba Lup of Heingang Village, an association tasked with the preservation of the shrine and the ponies of Lord Marjing, Lord of the Manipuri Pony.
And so over 40 ladies from 4 countries on 4 continents played on Mapal Kangjeibung, the world’s oldest extant polo ground, riding on Manipuri Ponies, the world’s original polo pony, to help build a center for women’s polo in India in Manipur, the birthplace of modern polo.
Polo Yatra 2018: The 3rd Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament Teams
Olivia Stringer-Berube, captain, Aiken SC
Belinda Brody, West Palm Beach FL
Marissa Wells, Fallston, MD
Eva Green, Lexington, KY
Billie Mascart, captain, Sydney
Alessia Russo, Sydney
Chloe Warren, Adelaide
Whitney Warren. Adelaide
Indiana Benetto, Auckland NZ
Rowena Stichbury, group leader
Tiva Gross, captain
Indian Polo Association
Monica Saxena, captain, New Delhi
Sanya Suhag, New Delhi
Ameera Pasrich, New Delhi
Abigail Slater, Gurgaon
Rajvi Rao, Hyderabad
Team Marjing Manipur
Salam Sumita, captain
Team Thangjing Manipur
Khungdongbam Habe, captain
L Somi Roy is the Principal of Huntre! Equine, (www.huntre.org), a social enterprise of equestrian sports based in Imphal and Mumbai. An earlier version of this article appeared in “Manipur Celebrates Women’s Polo”, published by Manipur Tourism.
The next and 4th Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament will be held in Imphal from January 15-21, 2019. Four international teams will play with 2 Indian teams. If interested in participating, please write to Huntre! Equine at firstname.lastname@example.org or our Adviser Partner, Ed Armstrong of Edward J. Armstrong, Inc, at email@example.com For information about Huntre!Adventures polo tours, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
1-508-523-4001 Email: email@example.com
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