The neglected game of the kings

Though member of a low-income family and given a meagre annual stipend by the government, Zarin Shah plays the expensive sport of polo out of passion. On average, Zarin Shah spends more than Rs8,000 a month to rear his polo horse but ironically, the government pays him just Rs7,000 annually.

“I even have to pay for the travel to and from Chitral and weeklong stay there to participate in polo tournament out of my own picket,” he regrets.

The neglected game of the kings
Polo players in Chitral.

Polo has really become the game of kings as only they can bear its very high expenses. The common man can’t think about playing it and even the fans call the horse of this game a ‘white elephant’.

This is just the beginning of the end of polo in Chitral, whose residents are fond of the sport. There is hardly any folklore in the local literature, which is devoid of the description of horse in which the hero and villains are essentially consummate horse riders and polo players.

The former rulers of the area patronised the sport and there was hardly any village without polo ground. They helped the people in different valleys and localities raise horses for war. During the days of peace, those horses were used in polo. The princes underwent special polo training. Some princes from the 18th century were the accomplished polo players.

The popularity of the game has been declining since 1970 when the people stopped raising horses as there was no more the patronage of the former princely state of Chitral.

The game suffered a major setback when the people found the raising of horses to be an economic burden in the wake of end to the official support to meet high expenses. It has retained popularity among the people of Chitral as large crowds of people turn up in the polo ground of Chitral to watch its matches. However, only few can afford to play it.

Until 1980s, the district cup polo tournament attracted teams from every valley of the district with the number of competitors coming to 80. The event lasted a month. However, the number has come down to around 20 showing the decaying trend of raising polo horses.

Most polo grounds in local villages were completely or partially occupied by the people in late 1970s due to the government’s indifference and thus, dealing a blow to the game. The polo grounds situated in Koghuzi, Reshun, Rayeen, Ayun, Oveer, Karimabad and Garam Chashma areas are the glaring examples of such encroachments.

As confirmed by district polo coach Aftab Alam, not a single polo ground has been added to the present one after the merger of the former princely state of Chitral. He said not a single polo ground was in its original shape due to the unbridled encroachments.

The retardation of the game of polo in Chitral is likely to cast adverse effect on tourism as the tourists coming to Chitral evinced a great interest in the game and their number can decrease exponentially if the game dies out. Those associated with the tourism industry in Chitral said almost all visitors yearn to watch polo match and demand the game’s inclusion in the roster of tour and expressed resentment after learning that no polo match was scheduled.

A tour operator said a number of foreign groups intending to visit Chitral diverted to Gilgit-Baltistan, where polo was still a popular game with a large number of polo grounds in every village.

He said at present, polo was played in Chitral town only, while the eco-tourists expected polo matches in every village they went but felt dejected when they were told the sport wasn’t played there. The style of polo game in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan is quite different from the one in vogue in other parts of the country. The one in Chitral essentially gives the view of a war as there are no hard and fast rules to govern players and the opponents are free to try every tactic to pass the ball through the goalpost. Even pushing the opponent to the ground is not prohibited. The spectators of the game are enthralled by the cutthroat competition giving it a war scene. Their passion continues to increase with every passing moment.

Haider Ali Shah, who has been running a tourist hotel in the city since 1960s, said he knew many tourists personally for whom the main attraction was the wild-style polo match.

Coach Aftab Alam said the game was salvaged by the Chitral Scouts as it extended all possible backing to it by raising horses and maintaining a number of polo teams by employing a good number of players in the force.

He said the polo teams of Chitral Scouts had some famous players the area had produced and it was the fervent support of the force that saved the game from dying four decades ago. Mr Alam said the Chitral police and Chitral Levies recently began patronising the game by raising horses and employing players in their polo teams, an appreciable step.

The beginning of the Shandur Polo Festival in 1985 as an annual event has greatly helped promote polo both in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. The event is held in the world’s highest polo ground with an altitude of 1200 feet above the sea level. The tour operators advertise it to successfully attract hundreds of tourists, including foreigners.

Chitral deputy commissioner Irshad Sodhar has come up with a comprehensive plan to revive polo as it usedto be five decades ago.

He said he had secured Rs35 million for the upgradation of Chitral city’s polo ground to bring it on a par with international standards, while Rs2.5 million each had been approved for polo grounds in five different places.

“A number of national and multinational companies will come forward shortly to patronise polo. They will raise own polo teams by employing the local players,” he said, adding that the initiative will restore the game of the kings in the region. The deputy commissioner also insisted that he had planned to remove encroachments from polo grounds.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2018