Along the rippling Shandur Lake, people wake up in the tented city in cold atmosphere and wait for the most exhilarating match of the year. Polo is not just a game; rather it is a passion and craze of the mountain dwellers. Shandur is the highest polo ground of the world located at an altitude of 12,500 feet above the sea level where the morning breeze in July makes the weather as cold as December in the plain areas of Pakistan.
Later in the day, the weather turns mild and players from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan appear, mounted on the backs of horses in front of a roaring crowd and make rows opposite to each other. Rumbles of hooves exactly coincide with the beats of drums. The sitting men and women of all age groups often stand up, stutter and make noise on each and every shot. The event attracts people from both within and outside of the country.
Before qualifying to play a match in Shandur, players are selected in local venues of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. The selection process is made through scores of assessments, where quality of horse plays a pivotal role. It is considered a matter of honor and prestige for any player to get selected to play in Shandur. Therefore, they try their best to impress the selectors making local events more and more interesting. After the selection process is completed, players reach Shandur a couple of days before the event to acclimatize their selves and their horses. Practice sessions are held between the players to get use to the altitude environment.
The archrival teams of Gilgit and Chitral have been playing in Shandur since 1936. Love for polo runs in the veins of people of northern areas of Pakistan. This can be noted through the influx of spectators in any polo match, no matter whenever and wherever it is played. People travel far and wide in order to see glimpses of polo match along the drum beats of local music. The style and rules of this crude form of polo is so captivating that it doesn’t look like a game; rather it is a tug of war between the two groups of people wearing different colors of shirts. Horse to horse collisions, locked sticks and dangerously falling players add to the thrill of adventurists.
There are apparently no rules and offences and foul play is abstained on ethical basis. This old form of playing Polo is preserved so beautifully through centuries by the people of this region. In the annals of history, polo (Chugan as it is known in Persian) emerged from Persia in 600BC in the Aryan tribes of Central Asia. Northern area of Pakistan was the first place where the game arrived and took the present shape. As the geography of the game stretched, Abbasid Caliph Haroon-ur-Rashid was the first Muslim emperor to play Polo in the 9th Century. A 10th century poet Firdosi has mentioned polo in his famous epic Shahnama. The imperial gazetteer of india published in 1881 by Sir William Wilson Hunter records the death of Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak in 1206 after falling from his horse. Later on Mughal empires made it a royal pastime and Baber himself was a very good Polo Player. Presently, it is played in every nook of the world with international standards but the one played in northern Pakistan is the most primitive form. It is one of the most expensive games in the world. To pet a horse needs a lot of resources.
Since very long, people of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan have been interested in horses and most households in a village used to keep them. But recently a decline is noticed in this long and historical tradition because other games also came in the area plus so many other causes which are indigenous. People have meager land ownership in the narrow valley which has further diminished due to furtherance of generations and consequent division of lands amongst them. The result is that only few households in a village can afford to fulfill the fodder requirements. Another reason for the decline is that keeping horse is a full time job. It needs you to be around all the time. As people are not well-off and everyone has to work for a living and because the game doesn’t earn anything and takes a lot, therefore people have started sidelining from this old cultural entity. Third reason is that the prices of horses in the market are sky-rocketing.
Once a horse dies due to any reason, people can’t afford to buy a new horse. Due to these reasons it is shifting from being a common game of the people of the area to the proverbial game of the kings. If these conditions remained standstill, it is not beyond imagination that it will become game of the elites only. The need of the day is to take measures to preserve this game before it becomes only part of history. The government and NGOs should step forward to give incentives to the players. At the local level, seminars should be arranged by literary societies to emphasize the importance of polo for our area. In this regard, the tourism department can play an important role. Tourism can be boosted through advertising the unique qualities of this free style game and the revenue could be shared with the interested players to keep horses and to promote this game. At last, everyone belonging to the area and especially polo fans should play their part for the development of this national sport of the area.
(The writer is Lecturer in Geography at the Islamabad Model College for Boy (IMCB), H-9, Islamabad).