Sunday, April 19, 2009


I read this interesting article on Buskashi and Polo written by the anthropologist Pita Kelekna, the author of the forthcoming book 'The Horse in Human History.'
In this article, which is a part of series of articles on the book and done in a from of a blog (quite clever and nicely introducing her book to the wider world), she writes on the two other most ancient equestrian games, since the first and foremost horse games were obviously: horse racing, target shooting from horseback, and communal hunting.
Mounted warfare was the culmination of all these games.

Today I just wanted to post some information about the ancient history of the Iranian game of Polo.

Actually, 'Gu-u-Chogan' is the Iranian name for Polo, while name 'polo' is a Tibetan name for a polo ball made from a willow root. 'Gu' means a ball and 'Chogan' means a stick, so it is a game of gall and stick played while ridding a horse that is a player too :)
Polo is as Iranian (whether Persian o North-Iranian - Scythian and Sarmatian - is unknown) as a Persian carper, or a Kantus (Median cloak that had become nomad attire for thousands of years, and in the 16th century ended up in Poland as a part of national costume known as Kontusz)) or a meydan (polo field).

Actually first accounts of the existence of polo came from the time of Achaemenid Shah (king) Darius (Darayavaush) the Great (522- 486 B.C.). And 2 centuries later his namesake of the same dynasty, Darius III, sent Alexander of Macedon a polo mallet (chogan) and a ball (gu) with an invitation to play polo instead of fighting. As we have learned in 5th grade (at least in the Polish elementary schools' history class) this particular hadnsome invitation did not work and Alexander galloped on ( a Thracian, Tessalian or Nissean stallion Bucephallas, as seen in this image from the Naples Museum in Italy) and eventually did conquer the whole Achaemenid Persian empire. as result the Greeks and Hellenic culture spead as far east as India and Afghanistan while eastern (Buddhism etc) influences filtered west into the Hellenic thought and culture. I will write some day on Eummenes of Bactria, Ghandara, Indo-Sakas, Kushans and other equestrian rulers of that part of the ancient world.

The most masterful Persian epic Shahnameh was composed in the late 10th century by Fidrousi and contains plenty of references about the game, now played in the courts of China, Japan, Central Asia, Arab caliphate etc but it was written 1500 years after the first mention of the game, as I have shown above.
There are other numerous mentions of the polo in the ancient Sasanian Persia, starting with the reign of Ardeshir, the fist of Sasanian king. The slayer of Romans and builder of cities shah Shapur I (r. 226–241 and I will write about him soon, there are images of him ridding his stallions, he was a dashing warrior)when a young boy was tested whether he was the real son of the already mentioned king Ardashir by use of his daring during a game of polo.
Shah Shapur II (309 to 379), another Sassanian ruler of Persia, learned to play the game of polo at the age of seven. Finally, at the Sassanian courts the noble women played polo in the 'meydan' as well. The most famous of these aristocratic women was beautiful princes Shireen who played many a prince.
Also, the ancient Pehlevi text and later Persian chronicler al Tabari confirm that when the future hunter-king Bahram V Gur( r.421–438)
was growing up he received three tutors in the arts of: reading, hunting, and polo along with skills of weapons.

Along this little introduction of the ancient polo, I am adding my own 'tracing' of one of the prime examples of the Sasanian sumptuary art - in form of metal plates with etchings or etchings and relief inside the metal plate - this website has many of them I am going to do a separate post about this plate and many others, God willing.
But note this king rides a stallion, the horse mane has been crenelated in a manner most ancient to the Iranian nomads, his tail tied and adorned with ribbons (swallow tail shape, perhaps to represent the swiftness of that bird to to give a horse more swiftness as in the American Indian believes), there is an early curb-bit along with a metal cavesson muzzle and no forehead strap or nose band (cavesson replaced it), but there is a strap under the mandible in the same fashion as seen on the Persepolis relieves(5th century BC) . The cinch seems to be of some fabric and not of leather. Discs adorn breastplate and crupper, similar to the Roman and later Hunnish horse harness styles. There may be a tamga - horse owner mark - on this stallion chest. I did not concentrate on the rider so he is rendered rather elementarily.


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girasol said...

Very cool. I am currently fascinated by Polo. An acquaintance was working on a documentary about the origins of polo in Manipur. I saw some rough footage, but not sure what happened to that project.

Love your more-frequently updated blog! Your art is brilliant!

Dario T. W. said...

thanks again for your visits and comments :) dziekuje,
merci, gracias, dziekuje Спасибо