Game of Polo – adapting to changing times

Many traditions fade away and die, while some survive. Why is that the case? I think a key reason for the difference in the outcome of traditions is adaptability and the acceptance of mutation. An example in point is the game of polo, generally considered to be the oldest team sport in known history. Polo is basically a ball sport, played on horses, where two teams attempt to score goals by hitting a small ball through their opposition’s goal.

polo game

Over the course of the last 12 months I saw two variants of the traditional game of polo – both in the resort town of Hua Hin in the Gulf of Thailand. One was a beach polo and the other an elephant polo. Both are quite different from the traditional game that is also known as the Game of Kings.

Origin of polo

Apparently polo was first played some 2,500 years ago by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia (who domesticated wild horses 4,000 years ago). It was then taken up as a training method for the ruler’s elite calvary. The game went to Persia – the first reference to polo was made in 600 BC. Thanks to the military superiority of its calvary, Persia expanded its empire across Asia. The term polo is derived from ‘pulu’ the Tibetan word for ball.

Polo came to the West via India where the game was introduced in the 16th century. British officers re-invented the game after they saw an exhibition match in India and brought it to England in the 19th century. The fashionable London Hurlingham Club set the rules which are substantially still in use today. British cattlemen introduced the game to Argentina, the current top place for polo aficionados. I was a pleasure for me to watch the world’s best polo players at the Palermo grounds in Buenos Aires a few years ago.

As a recreation, polo is an expensive game and thus reserved for the rich and privileged. As a modern sport, it has had difficulty grappling with the association of exclusivity. Fortunately, the game has developed variant spectator sports which are more readily accessible to the public. Two such variants are beach polo and elephant polo.

Beach polo is played in an enclosed sand arena on horse with three players in each team. It has gained popularity and in 2008 the International Beach Polo Association was created to set unified rules. Elephant polo is played on grass with two teams each with three players. In addition, there is a mahout (elephant handler) on each elephant. The game is currently played in Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand – under the auspices of the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA).

To paraphrase Charles Darwin: It is not the strongest of the traditions that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

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