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"Chogân" by Master Mahmmoud
ORIGIN & HISTORY OF CHOGÂN (POLO)
Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS),
University of London
Polo spreads East & West
has became popular among other nations such as China, it was
the royal pastime for many
centuries. The Chinese most
learned the game either from the Iranian nobility who sought refuge in
Chinese courts after the invasion of Iranian Empire by the Arabs, or
the 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 was an enthusiastic
patron of equestrian activities. Less cultured, one might think, was the
reaction of Emperor Tai Tsu in
910 CE. who according to one source, ordered all the
players beheaded after a favourite was killed in a match.
Japanese learnt polo from the Chinese, while across the
the game spread as far West as Egypt, with the Arab
conquests of the Iran beginning in the 7th century. The game
occupied an exalted place in Islamic court life, Haroon-al-Rashid
being the first of the Abbasid Caliphs to play. The polo stick was
an important motif in Islamic, was well as Chinese heraldry, and
the Jukandar Polo Master, was a well-known official in the Caliphs's
seems strange that the Crusaders did not take polo back to Europe
with them, but the game did reach Constantinople under the
Byzantines. The 12th century ruler, Manuel I was a patron
of polo 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 match. The Muslim conquerors also took the game
eastward with them, to the Indian subcontinent where it was played
by the Muslim rulers and adopted by local Kings and Princes as well.
In a dusty, back alley near Anarkali Bazar in Lahore stands a
monument to Sultan Qutabuddin Aibak, a 13th century King who died
when his pony fell during a polo match.
was about this time that the hordes of Changiz Khan swept down
from the North to conquer all the Iranian realm and Asia Minor. If
his followers had not already
played the game, they certainly learnt
it from the Iranians.
One legend has it that Timurlane, a descendent of
Changiz, once ordered
his cavalry to play polo with the
heads of their captives. When a
follower of Timurlane, Babar, founded the Mughal Empire in India in
the 16th century, he played polo and established it as the most
popular of royal sports for his successors. Akbar was especially
fond of the game, sometimes playing at night by torchlight. His
vast stables, which can still be seen near Agra, housed his
favourite polo ponies. The most spectacular tribute to polo in
antiquity is a city laid out around a Kings Polo Ground.
the end of the 16th century, the capital of the Safavid
Empire was moved to Esfahan from Qazvin, and Shah Abbas the Great
decided to redesign the city to make it the most beautiful in the
He planned his city around a vast, central square, the Maydan-e-Shah
or Naqsh-e Jahan. The maydan, which served as the royal polo ground,
was about 500 yards long and 150 yards wide and at each end were
stone goal posts eight yards apart, which is today the regulation
width of a polo goal. At
approximately midfield the Shah built a
seven-storey palace, Ali-Qapu.
As the central feature of the palace his architects designed a
towering royal gallery, its roof
supported by 18 graceful, wooden
columns. At the south end of the field just beyond the goal posts
Shah Abbas constructed the magnificent Masjed-Shah, whose mosaic
domes and minarets make it one of the most beautiful in the World.
Beyond the northern goal is the elaborately decorated Qaysariya
Gateway leading to the Royal Bazaar. The stone goal posts, 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.
can note at sites like Esfahan and in ancient art and literature
certain differences in 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. The
game was sometimes started with the ball placed at midfield and the
two teams charging one another from opposite ends; sometimes the
ball was thrown into the air and hit towards goal to start a match.
were of shapes, which would appear curious to the players of
today. In Japan and in Byzantium, the sticks carried racquet heads
rather than mallet heads and a leather-covered ball was used.
16th century Iranian Chogân (Polo) sticks
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 Byzantium. As the
great Eastern Empires collapsed, however, so disappeared the
glittering court life of which polo has been so important a part,
and the game itself was preserved only in remote villages.
in Kashmir, is such a village, situated between the great
Karakoram Range and the Hindu Khush north of Kashmir. Here one can
still watch polo as it was played centuries ago. In the absence of a
King’s court the polo scene at Gilgit could be taken straight from
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