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IRANIAN SPORTS

A SHORT HISTORY OF CHOGÂN (POLO)


 

By Shapour Suren-Pahlav

1998

 

Fig. 1. "Chogân" by Master Mahmmoud Farshchiyân

 

“Let other people play other things – the king of game is still the game of kings”

 

  

This 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.

 

Polo 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 of Darius 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.

 

The 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.

 

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Fig. 2. A folio of Persian manuscript of Mathnavi of Guy-va-Chogan (Khalnameh) by Tahmaseb Mirza (Click to enlarge)

 

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Fig. 3. Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Safavid Polo Post in foreground

(Click to enlarge)

 

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Fig. 4. and 5. Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Safavid Polo Post in foreground

(Click to enlarge)

 

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fig. 6. and 7. Naqsh-e Jahan squre, and Safavid goal posts. 

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.

The 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.

 

Many 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).

 

The 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.

 

Polo 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.

On 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.

 

For 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.

 

It 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.

 

One 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.

At 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 Persian miniatures.

 

One 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.

Even 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 villages.   

 

Three 16th century Iranian Chogân (Polo) sticks

 

 

Bibliography


 

Dick Davis, The Legend of Seyavash, Penguin Books (1991)

Frank Milburn, Polo: The Emperor of Games, Alfred a Knopf (1994)

Abul Qasem Ferdowsi, The Shahnameh: (The Book of Kings): 5 (Vol 5) (Persian Text Series. New Series, No 1), Edited by Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, Mazda Publisher (1997)

John Lloyd, Roberts Michael, and Ronald Ferguson, The Pimm's Book of Polo, Trafalgar Square (1989)

 

 

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