The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
A SHORT HISTORY OF CHOGÂN (POLO)
Fig. 1. "Chogân" by Master Mahmmoud Farshchiyân
“Let other people play other things – the king of game is still the game of kings”
above verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, between
the great Karakoram
Range and the Hindu Khush north of Kashmir, and near the legendary silk route
from China to the West. In one
ancient sentence it epitomises the feelings of players today.
is arguably one of the most complex games in the world. Its precise origin is
obscure and undocumented but there is ample evidence of the game's regal place
in the history of Asia. No one knows where or when stick first met ball, but it
must have been some time after the horse was domesticated by the ancient Iranian
tribes of Central Asia, and was probably before their migration to the Iranian
plateau. It seems likely that, as the use of light cavalry spread across Iran-proper to the rest of Asia, so did this rugged horseback game. Many
scholars believe that polo originated among the Iranian tribes before the reign
the Great (521-485 BCE) and that his polo-honed cavalry then forged
the Second Iranian dynastic empire, the Achaemenids (550-300 BCE).
Others contend that the Chinese or even the Mongols were the first to try
their hands at the game. However, it is certainly Persian literature and art
which give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity.
great Ferdowsi, the most famous of Iran’s epic-poets, gives several accounts
of royal polo tournaments in his 10th century epic, Shâhnâmeh
(The Book of Kings). In the earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticizes
an international match between the mythical Turanian force and the followers of Siyâwash, a legendary Persian prince from the earliest centuries
of the Empire. The poet is eloquent in his praise of Siyâwash's skills on the
polo field. Ferdowsi also writes about the Sasanian Emperor Sâpour-II, who
learnt to play polo when he was only seven years old.
Another 10th century historian, Dinvari, describes polo and its general rules and gives instructions to players including such advice as 'polo requires a great deal of exercise’, ‘if a polo stick breaks during a game it is a sign of inefficiency' and 'a player should strictly avoid using strong language and should be patient and temperate'. It is not clear how closely players ever managed to adhere to, at least the last of, these suggestions. During the 10th century the Iranian King Qâbus, of the Ziyarid dynasty and the patron of the Gonbad e Qâbus tomb, also set down some rules for polo and especially mentioned the risks and dangers of the game.
best-known references to polo in Persian poetry are in the Rubâiyât of Omar
Khayyâm (1048-1123), where he uses polo to illustrate philosophical points.
of the Persian manuscripts in which these references appear are beautifully
illustrated with miniatures depicting sovereigns and their best horsemen playing
polo (fig.1 and 2).
12th century Iranian poet Nezâmi weaves the love story of the Sasanian Emperor
Khosrow II Parviz (590CE) and his beautiful consort Shirin, around her ability
on the polo field, and describes matches between the Emperor and his courtiers
and Shirin with her ladies-in-waiting.
became popular among other nations too. To the west, the Crusader emphasis on
heavy cavalry may have been the reason why they did not take the game back to
Europe with them. However, polo certainly reached Constantinople under the
Byzantines. The 12th century ruler, Manuel I
Commenos is known to have been a polo patron and it is recorded that one of his
successors, Emperor Hohannes Chinnasus, played until his leg and arm were
crushed in a bad fall during a match.
The game spread further with the Arab Muslim conquests, including as far as Egypt and to the Indian subcontinent. Polo quickly occupied an exalted place in Islamic court life, Harun-al-Rashid being the first of the Abbasid Caliphs to play. The polo stick was an important motif in Islamic heraldry and the Jukandar Polo Master was a well-known official in the Caliphs' entourage.
the Indian subcontinent, the game was adopted by the local kings and princes as
well as being played by the Muslim rulers. In a dusty back alley near Anarkali
Bazaar in Lahore stands a monument to Sultan Qutabuddin Aibak, a 13th century
king who died when his pony fell during a polo match.
the Chinese, polo was their royal pastime for many centuries. The polo
stick appears on Chinese royal coats of arms and the game was especially a part
of court life in the golden age of Chinese classical culture under Ming-Hung,
the Radiant Emperor, who was an enthusiastic patron of equestrian activities.
Not all Chinese emperors were so cultured: according to one source, Emperor Tai
Tsu ordered all the other players beheaded after a favourite of his was killed
in a match in 910CE. The Chinese were probably taught the game by the Iranian
nobility who sought refuge in Chinese courts after the Arab invasion of the
Iranian Empire during the 7th century, or perhaps learnt via Indian tribes who had themselves studied
under the Iranians. The Japanese learnt polo from the Chinese.
is not clear if Genghis Khan (1162-1227) knew about polo before his armies swept
down from the North to conquer the entire Iranian realm and the rest of Asia
Minor. However, if the hordes were not already familiar with the game, they
certainly learnt it then from the Iranians.
legend has it that Tamerlane (1336-1405), inheritor of the Genghis legend, once
ordered his cavalry to play polo with the heads of their captives. When a later
descendant of Tamerlane, Babur, founded the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th
century, he established polo as the most popular of royal sports for his
successors. Akbar, Babur’s grandson, was especially fond of the game, even
playing at night by torchlight. His vast stables, which can still be seen near
Agra, housed his many polo ponies.
The most spectacular tribute to polo, however, is an imperial city laid out around a royal polo ground (figures 3 to 7). Esfahân was the constructed capital of Shah Abbâs the Great, the Safavid Emperor (1571-1629). Shah Abbâs planned his city to be the most beautiful in the world and centred it on his polo ground – the Maydân-e-Shah, also known as the Naqsh-e Jahân (fig 3.). This vast central square was the largest in the world until the construction of Tien An Meng. It is around 560 metres long and 160 metres wide. At each end are stone goal posts 7.3 metres apart, and this is today the regulation width of a polo goal.
the south end of the field and just beyond the goal posts, Shah Abbâs
constructed Masjed-e Shah, whose mosaic domes and minarets make it one of the
most beautiful mosques in the world. Beyond the northern goal is the elaborately
decorated Qaysariya Gateway leading to the Royal Bazaar. The polo ground was
therefore very definitely at the centre of public life in the city. To further
underline this, at approximately midfield the Shah built a six-storey palace, Âli-Qâpu
(fig.4 and 5). As the central feature of the palace his architects designed a towering
royal viewing gallery, its roof supported by 18 graceful wooden columns. Shah
Abbâs’ stone goal posts (fig. 6. and 7), as well as the palace, the mosque and the
bazaar can still be seen today, although ornamental pools and gardens have
replaced the field where ponies galloped and mallets flayed centuries ago. The
Bazaar in Esfahan offers, in addition to the normal wares of an Eastern market,
an astonishing variety of souvenirs decorated with old polo scenes copied from
can note at sites like Esfahan and also in early art and literature certain
differences between the polo of past centuries and the game as we know it today.
The fields were often longer and narrower. Teams were frequently much larger
than the four-a-side standard of today. While the game was sometimes started
with the ball placed at midfield with the two teams charging one another from
opposite ends, at other times the ball was thrown into the air and hit towards
one of the goals. Mallets were of shapes which would appear curious to the
players of today. In Japan and in Byzantium, for example, the sticks carried
racquet rather than mallet heads and a leather-covered ball was used.
For more than 2000 yrs, therefore, polo remained a favourite of the rulers of Asia. Queens played alongside Kings, as did the nobility and other mounted warriors.
outside Iran, polo was the nearest equivalent to a national sport in those
times: from Japan to Egypt, and from India to Byzantium. As the great Eastern
Empires collapsed, however, so did the glittering court life of which polo had
been so important a part, and the game itself was preserved only in remote
Three 16th century Iranian Chogân (Polo) sticks
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