Naghsh-e-Jahän square is the heart of Esfahän. And this heart throbs to host Iranian natives and guests, foreign tourists or anyone who comes to admire the beauty of one of Iran’s many gems. A four-century old trade, the square is filled with bazaars and shops that sell everything from redolent spices and handmade jewelries to Chinese products: Stocked with a palace to boot, Nagsh-e-Jahän has long been a place for gathering–whether it is the tourists and locals of today or sufficing as a meeting spot for kings and the masses centuries ago–and the square still exudes the same welcoming energy.
However, one thing that not many visitors, or many natives for that matter, know is that the square is where a 900 feet-long field was made for the game: Polo or Chogän, in Persian. Today, the only visible evidence of the polo field are the short stone columns (each 24 feet apart) that sit quietly between trees planted on the lawn of the square…And, the only part of the square that has lost its vitality, is the polo field.
And yes, the game polo was first played in Iran. In fact, many believe it even originated in Iran. Even though there is no record of the exact time of polo’s birth, the earliest games of chogän, are estimated to have been between Turkmans and Persians in 600 BC.
Many Persian kings, such as Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty, were privately trained in the game, and played it regularly. Thus, polo was originally called “the game of kings.”
The importance of polo is also evident in Persian poetry. While many Persian poets such as Sa’adi, Hafez and Nasser-Khosrow have mentioned polo, Rudaki is the first post-Islamic poet who mentions Chogan. Khayyam who is best known for his quatrains in the West, has used polo to explain his philosophy. Even, Ferdosi, the author of the epic “Book of Kings” Shähnämeh, glorifies this game on several occasions, most important of which is the match between Siavash (son of a Persian King) and Afrasiab (a mythical king of Turan), where he particularly praises Siavash’s proficiency at the game.
The word “polo” is believed to come from “pholo” which means ball in Balti language of Tibet. The word Chogan, however, comes from the kind of wood the mallet is made of.
Polo was originally designed to be played by nobility with as many as one hundred players and was a kind of miniature battle that measured horseback riding and fighting skills of kings’ soldiers and guards. Later, however, with its growing popularity, the number of players shrank and the sport became widely available to the public.
The other difference between the original game and what it is known as today is the speed of the game. Initially, polo been a slow game where horses were not trained to run fast. Now, the game is played by four players on the field and two mounted umpires on the side. Each game is divided into six to eight sections that are called Chukka. Each chukka is timed to last seven minutes but the game goes on until the ball goes out of field. The main goal of the game is to land the small plastic or wooden ball in the opponent’s goal.
By the thirteenth century, after the Mogul invasion, the game was taken to the East and in the 1850s, the British witnessed it being played in Manipur which inspired them to establish polo clubs and eventually create games such as golf and hockey.
Two decades later, in 1870s John Watson speculated rules of the game as they are recognized and played today. According to Iran Chamber Society, other cultures adopted the game of polo as well.
For example, the Chinese–especially under Ming-Hung the Radiant Emperor–were quite fond of the game, and it is suggested that other cultures learned the game either directly through Persians who had escaped the Arab invasion of eleventh century, or indirectly through Indians or its popularity amongst Byzantines of Constantinople.
Many historians have emphasized the value of the game and have noted its difficulty: For instance, a ninth-century historian concludes that breaking of the stick or mallet during the game, is an indication of the player’s lack of skill. In the West, especially in Britain and Australia and in South East Asia, like India, polo still has its ardent fans and players. In Iran–its birthplace–however, polo does not have an apparent place beyond continuing to exist amongst some nomadic Iranian tribes whose lives require riding horses.
And although signs of polo in Isfahan’s Naghsh-e-Jahan square have been buried over time…One just needs to look carefully, and listen wholeheartedly, to feel the remnants of a vibrant game once played in the land of the Persians.