Team USPA Women’s India tour in January was the first time a women’s polo team had visited the country. The team, composed of Cristina Fernandez, Carly Persano, Tiamo Hudspeth and Julia Smith, was led by Steve Armour of the Houston Polo Club, was the first international women’s team put together by Team USPA, the specialized program for selecting emerging professional polo players.
The concept was hatched in November 2014 when Steve Armour, Ed Armstrong and Somi Roy watched a demonstration of women’s polo in Imphal, Manipur India. The demonstration showed them two things: one was that there were a lot of women playing polo in Manipur and second, they needed some help! They thought if they could get some women from the US to come and play, it would greatly benefit the women players here. The local leaders heartily agreed.
Armstrong and Roy are co-founders of Huntre ! Adventures, a company specializing in tours to Manipur and other interesting locations. The partnership was born out of the their activism in the plight to save the Manipuri Pony, one of India’s five equine breeds, now dwindled to a population of less than 500 and an official Endangered Breed of Manipur.
That’s when Steve, a Governor at Large of USPA’s National Board of Governors and member of the USPA International Committee went to work. He approached Kris Bowman, Executive Director of USPA Polo Development and head of Team USPA. Kris was delighted at the prospect and thought it was a great idea to send some Team USPA women to India to help stimulate and improve polo there. The mission would start with leveraging from Manipur, the tiny cradle of modern polo that remarkably was the only state in India where there were women’s polo teams. The funding was put together from many sources within USPA and the trip was green-lighted. And in Manipur, on the other side of the globe, Somi got the All Manipur Polo Association to start a weekly women’s polo clinic under the famed Khelen Meisnam, a former captain of Manipur’s men’s polo team, and started working with tourism in New Delhi and in Manipur.
The unusual task of getting international polo on the tourism agenda emerged during Somi’s discussion with Manipur’s sports, tourism and polo leaders in early 2012 that he and Ed, then the Director Tours and Tournaments at the USPA, bring a men’s USPA team to boost the annual Manipur’s international polo tournament. And in the fall of 2013, USPA introduced goal-handicapped polo to Manipur and sent a 9-goal men’s team led by Mason Wroe who played in the state’s international polo tournament, now a part of Manipur’s annual Sangai Tourism Festival.
One key reason was the emergence of tourism as one of the major industries being developed in Manipur and the entire North Eastern Region of India after decades of restricted travel there by foreign nationals. The high interest in polo as a niche sport to be developed for tourism in India translated in Manipur to its prominent use of polo as a branding agency because of its historical roots there, as well as the immense interest in the game as a popular egalitarian common man’s sport.
The idea of a women’s team drew the immediate interest of Nidhi Tripathi, the new dynamic and creative head of Manipur Tourism. She saw it draw together two famous strands of Manipur’s emerging branding: its powerful women and its historic polo. Working with Somi to pull together his exploratory discussions with the Indian Polo Association and Rajasthan Polo Club, the tour shaped into a model of sports tourism, using the linking attribute of polo to use fabled tourist appeal of the palaces and pageantry of Rajasthan to give a lift to Manipur’s own fledgling industry, and, at the same time, use the fabled polo of regal Rajasthan to promote women’s polo at the national level.
The tour started in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, perched on a high flood plain and fringed by cascading blue mountains. Organized by the All Manipur Polo Association, the august polo body celebrating its 60th “Diamond” anniversary this year, four Manipuri women’s teams each took on a USPA player to play in the 1st Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament from January 17-21. The tournament was played to huge crowds at Mapal Kanjeibung, perhaps the world oldest functioning polo ground, on hardy agile Manipur Ponies that stand at only about 11-13 hands.
The tour was billed as “the Sports of Kings from the Land of its Birth to the Land of the Maharajas” by presenter Manipur Tourism, intent upon using polo to brand Manipur. Working with them, Huntre! Adventures linked the tiny Southeastern Himalayan state of India on its Myanmar border, where the modern game had its origin in the 19th century, to the grand opulence of Jaipur in Rajasthan, where the game found its most luxurious home in India. This conceptualization by management partner Huntre! Adventures, together with the equine partnership of Edward J. Armstrong and L. Somi Roy, connected its polo and pony preservation activism with emerging international tourism in this remote and until recently, closed-off part of India.
The play of the local teams was elevated by the presence of a Team USPA player. All of the local women played at their highest level and the games flowed nicely. With each game that was played, the teams gelled better and better leading up to the final. The final was a hard fought match, pitting the Siroy team, led by Julia Smith against the Team USPA team, with Tiamo Hudspeth at the helm. Siroy led for the whole game with Team USPA edging closer and closer and almost caught up by the fourth and final chukker. The final score was 6-5 Siroy.
Then it was on to Jaipur and the Rajasthan Polo Club for a combination of the Team USPA players, two Manipuri players and two Indian women players to play some exhibition chukkers on the day of the finals of the venerable Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh Cup.
Heads were turned as 30 acrobatic Manipuri drummers took to the velvet green of Rambagh Polo Ground and leaped and pirouetted to enrapture the spectators led by HH Princess Diya, daughter of Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh, and her consort Maharaja Narendra Singh, Chairman of the Rajasthan Polo Club. Then the accomplished players took the field in a game dubbed humorously “Cowgirls vs Gopis”, referring to the milkmaids of India’s mythology. The teams consisted of:
Blue Team (Cowgirls)
Tiamo Hudspeth-Team USPA
Carly Persano -Team USPA
Avshreya (Bambi) Singh – New Delhi, India
Salam Sumita Devi- Manipur, India
Red Team (Gopis)
Cristina Fernandez-Team USPA
Julia Smith-Team USPA
Manisha Pattu -Jaipur, India
Thoudam Tanna Devi-Manipur, India
The two teams played three chukkers in front of the crowd that was building for the finals of the Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh Cup, which was played immediately afterwards. Some were skeptical that women’s polo would ever catch on in India and others embraced the inevitability of it. But all were very impressed with the level of play demonstrated on the field. And the commitment of Imphal, Jaipur and the USPA at the end of the tour to make this an annual event speaks volumes about the event’s success. We look forward to January of 2017!
This report was prepared by Ed Armstrong and Somi Roy of Huntre Adventures.
The photos are courtesy of Manipur Tourism.
Watch YouTube video published on 3 Feb 2016,1st Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament on 17th September 2016 at Kangjeibung Pologround, Imphal