The mysterious game of Polo in Hyderabad

Why was the police action in Hyderabad named Operation Polo? According to some reports it may have been because before independence, during the period of the Nizams, Hyderabad was a very important centre for the game of Polo. No less than 17 polo grounds and 7 horse racing courses existed in and around the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. So Hyderabad was widely associated with the game of Polo.

According to Siraj Attari, an accomplished polo player who later became the south zone Steward of the Indian Polo Association, Hyderabad was the main hub of equestrian events in India from 1876 till about 1910. Speaking to he explained: “It was Viqar-ul-Umrah, of the Paigah family, who promoted and developed polo in Hyderabad from 1877 onwards. No other state in India had the kind of infrastructure for equestrian events as Hyderabad had back then.”

“The famous aristocrat was a widely traveled man and on one occasion was invited to Great Britain by Queen Victoria in 1877. There, after lunch at the famous Windsor Castle, he was invited by the Queen to witness a polo match. When he saw the action packed contest, he immediately fell in love with the game. After he returned to Hyderabad, he bought 50 Arab horses, roped in the best trainers from Rajasthan and Punjab, and began to develop the grounds in Hyderabad and Secunderabad to make the twin cities the leading polo centre in all of India,” said Siraj.

“Everyone was surprised when Viqar-ul-Umra’s Paigah team won the Bombay Presidency Open championship. Soon the British army outfits located in Secunderabad began forming their own teams with great enthusiasm. Great names of polo such as General Beauvoir de Lisle, Captains Ricket and Charles Gough and other British officers helped the game to develop. Famous people of history such as Lord Kitchener, Sir Winston Churchill and Earl Mountbatten have played polo in Hyderabad,” said Siraj.

It is recorded in a magazine that in November 1896, Churchill’s team came to play a tournament in Hyderabad. The prize was a silver trophy which was worth Rs.1000 (a huge sum in those days). His team won the trophy and the next day he wrote a letter to his mother in which he stated:
“Our final match against a native team was witnessed by nine thousand natives who cheered every goal by their side but were terribly disappointed at the end.”

Siraj continued: “Polo became so popular that even in the height of summer, polo tournaments were being played. Viqar-ul-Umra organized polo tournaments for the royal families. The best player that Hyderabad has ever had was Shah Mirza Baig, a player with a handicap of 9. Later we have had players like Shamsheer Ali (handicap 5) and Basheer Ali who played for Hyderabad Chougan.”

For the information of people who are not aware of the handicaps in polo, it is a system that has been created so that teams can be evenly matched. The players are rated on a scale from minus 2 to 10. Minus two is a novice while a player with a handicap of 10 is one of the best in the world. So Shah Mirza Baig with his handicap of 9 was almost at the world’s best level.

Says Siraj: “The 6th Nizam of Hyderabad namely Sir Mahboob Ali Khan, was extremely attracted to the game and was very passionate about polo. The present Malakpet Race course used to have polo matches initially. It was part of the Mahboob Manzil grounds and the Nizam himself saw to its development first for polo and then for horse racing. It is now one of the top racecourses in India and holds prestigious events.”

“The main polo grounds in Secunderabad were at the present Bison polo ground which still exists, another opposite the old racecourse near the Begumpet airport, and another in Bolarum and then the Parade ground. In Hyderabad the important grounds were at Falaknuma palace which had stables and a spacious ground which housed the polo ponies of the  Sixth Nizam, then  Fateh Maidan (before it was named the Lal Bahadur Shastry Stadium), Shamshabad, Masab Tank, one near Sanjeeviah Park, one near the Administrative Staff College and two in Golconda besides several others,” said Siraj.

“There were many famous teams. They were the Nizam’s team, Salar Jung’s team, Nizam’s Army team, British Regiment team and the Prince of Berar’s polo club. He imported as many as 50 top class polo ponies from Argentina and put together a terrific team. But in 1955 the Prince began to focus more on horse racing than on Polo so the game suffered. The reputed Golconda Polo team was shut down,” said Siraj.

“But polo lovers like Major General Nawab Khusro Jung, Nawab Mehdi Nawaz Jung and Ata Ur Rahman took the help of the government and formed the Andhra Pradesh Riding Club in 1956. The Hyderabad polo season was conducted regularly up to 1958 when there was a gap till 1962. After that it was started again but the man who really revived it in a big way in 1974 was a top level army officer–Major General K.S. Bajwa. The AP Riding Club also got help from Maharaja Prem Singh who was then the IPA Steward. The Maharaja spent a few months in Hyderabad every year and trained youngsters to play the game. The Society of Equine Art was formed in 1972 and its polo team was granted affiliation too,” explained Siraj.

“But again the activity came to a halt and from 1985 to 1993 there was no polo. Then in 1994 I began conducting the polo season again and I also roped in sponsors and big teams such as the 61st Cavalry and the President’s Bodyguard,” said Siraj.

“For several seasons we ran the polo tournaments with great success. There was a lot of media coverage in all the local and national dailies as well as television channels. But again due to a variety of factors it came to a halt. Now the army wants me to conduct the tournaments again. They have asked me to restart polo in Hyderabad. I have been giving it some serious thought. I will need to do a lot of planning but it may happen again in the near future,” said Siraj.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects