Champions of the North
Polo might not enjoy mass appeal throughout Pakistan, but in the north, it is still considered the ‘Game of Kings’ and the ‘King of Games’
“It’s like a drug, a disease, a worm in a fresh fruit that makes its home and refuses to leave till all flesh is eaten away,” is how Izhar Ali Khan describes what the sport of polo means to him.
The 29-year-old scored eight goals at the Shandur Polo Festival 2016 with the help of his trusted companion, a horse named Cheetah – setting a new record in the history of freestyle polo. “Polo is everything for me,” says the player, who hails from Chitral.
While polo doesn’t enjoy the mass appeal cricket does throughout the country, it is a populist sport in Pakistan’s northern region where it is celebrated with pomp and show. Walnuts, pine nuts and seeds of grains are strewn in festivity. Women and children dance in streets and prepare meals for the homecoming. Every single person ceases to work to celebrate the return of polo players, who are given the royal treatment in every village from Shandur till Chitral on their return from the highest polo ground in the world – Shandur. Even horses, considered athletes, are showered with kisses.
Playing on the same horse for 50-80 minutes in a ‘battle without swords’ that has no chukkers and no rules for safety is a royal endeavour, indeed.
The sport, which is known as the “king of games and game of the kings”, is thought to have been first played in Iran around 6th Century BC as a training game for cavalry units or other elite troops. Centuries later, a large festival honouring the original free style polo is still played in the northern region of Pakistan with great zeal and commitment.
Locals claim that the game has been played in the region since as far back as the history of the region can be traced.
“When the British ruled over the Subcontinent, they took a lot of goodness from the region with them; however, they also took our kingly game of polo and distorted it,” Sheikh Farooq Iqbal, a polo player and a resident of Chitral city says. He adds, “The British loved the game and took it to the world from here, but they changed it; brought in ridiculous rules under pretexts of safety, and destroyed the royal sport.”
A 42-year-old Pakistan national polo player who played in Chitral during his peak playing career, told The Express Tribune that polo played in the north is in a league of its own. “It is savage, wild and deadly,” he says.
Many locals concur and say that Shandur is perhaps the only region, or at least one of the last few, to still indulge in freestyle polo. “One of the British administrators assigned for northern areas during the colonial period ordered Qabool Hayat Kakakhel to construct an enormous polo ground in Shandur,” says one of the locals, adding that the ground was called mass junali or moony polo ground because the administrator was fond of the moon.
Every year in July, the Shandur polo ground sets the stage for a fierce match where spectators — locals as well as hundreds of tourists — flock to the region to witness the most exciting polo tournament of the entire region. Teams from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, traditional arch-rivals in the sport, practice the game all year round and are perched to take each other through a magnificent three-day event.
Around 3,700 metres above sea level, Shandur Pass is surrounded by mountain peaks, lakes and wild variety of flora and fauna.
Supporters of both sides travel long distances from remote parts of Chitral and G-B to watch the thrilling game, played here since 1936.
The three-day event offers more than just the sport. With folk songs, local dances and displays of intense valour and colour, people are exposed to the fascinating lifestyle and culture of this region.
The event, which is jointly organised by G-B and K-P over the last decade, has not been without controversy. In 2014, players from G-B refused to participate in the festival due to differences with the people of Chitral over the boundary and ownership of Shandur Pass.
The following year, the event was cancelled when much of the region’s infrastructure was damaged and washed away due to floods.
In 2016, the ownership issue resurfaced again; however, passion for the sport trumped all political and geographical differences and with assistance from the Frontier Corps, the possibility of conflict was averted. To resolve the dispute over ownership of the pass, the government has, according to sources, formed a commission which will also help to keep the festival’s history at safe distance from elements that might tarnish it.
Polo players gather in Shandur at least 10 days before the big day to take part in pre-festival festivities. Each player hops on to his jeep along with his horse, its keeper, a few friends and goats and sheep.
On the ground, they set up their tents and light a bonfire each night. People from each camp slaughter the cattle and cook for everyone.
There is a party and gathering at a tent every night – the men dance, sing and sit by the fire, enjoying the breathtaking view Shandur has to offer, Iqbal says. The festivities serve not only as great team-building exercises but strengthen the bond between people. Moreover, early arrival ensures players and their ponies get acclimatised to the cold temperature and scarcity of oxygen in Shandur.
“With our jeeps providing the only source of light on the grounds of Shandur, the men feast and enjoy their time before the match, which thousands of people from all over the country and world come to watch, Iqbal says. He adds the players feel no less royal than the setting set before them during the actual festival.
Considered the Parliament of Chitral, Shandur also serves as place where people can convey their grievances to higher authorities, who visit the area for the polo festival.
“We only have one MNA in Chitral and have little representation in the assembly,” a local journalist, who chose not to disclose his name, told The Express Tribune. “Shandur is an important platform for us since we can communicate our issues to [higher authorities who come to watch the match.”
Chitral and Gilgit have been battling each other on Shandur polo ground since 1936. In recent years, however, Chitral has been emerging victorious regularly.
Veteran polo player Muhammad Zafar Ali Shah says Chitral has a newer generation of polo players compared to Gilgit. “Gilgit players, who are in fact selected from nine districts of G-B unlike only one from Chitral, are older.” He adds that the youth in Gilgit does not seem to be as interested in the sport as the youth in Chitral, which is another reason for the latter district’s recent victories.
Polo champion Izhar Ali Khan played his first match in 1995 at the district level in Chitral. Trained by his father, Maqbool Ali Khan, one of the best polo players from the region, Izhar played his first game at Shandur in 2004 as a team B player. “I was ecstatic and I cannot explain to you the rush of adrenaline in my body when my uncles mounted me on the horse.” He adds, “Even though I had played the sport as a child, I used to run off on horses without even putting a saddle on them as a young boy if I knew a match was happening somewhere. Standing in Shandur was mesmerising, thrilling and scary.”
Izhar played for Team B for two years and in 2006, former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf awarded him with the man of the match trophy. The following year, Izhar was promoted to Team A and has been playing in the team ever since.
Fellow polo player Iqbal is all praises for Izhar. “He is a world class player,” he told The Express Tribune, adding that Izhar’s grandfather, Zafar Ali Khan, considered as Baba-e-Polo (father of polo), would send shivers down the spines of Gilgit players.
“There is no guarantee that a family that has played the sport for four generations will produce a remarkable polo warrior, but training is vital and that definitely existed for Izhar,” Iqbal says, adding that his fellow player and friend had been instrumental in his own polo career. “I come from a business family and played the sport after arguing with my father for years,” he says. “Izhar trained me and was always very encouraging – he would lend me his horses and give me a chance to play whenever a match or tournament took place.”
Entering the field of polo while being a businessman and the founder and patron of Chitral 4x4 race club was not easy for Iqbal. However, growing up in a region where polo mania was honoured, venerated and inculcated, the outcome, he says, was inevitable.
He played his first match in mass junali in 2007. “I will never forget the feeling when at 6am I stood outside my camp in Shandur ready to ride and take down the opponent team,” he says.
Iqbal has played the sport ever since, participating in various tournaments. In 2008, he dislocated his shoulder during a district match in 2008 but he says no amount of broken bones, rods in his body or disagreements with his father could keep him away from the game.
“I am crazy and wild and polo is precisely the sport that matches my temperament — the thrill of chasing a ball mounted on a majestic beast while fighting several others in your way — comes with a certain degree of love for [being wild],” he says.
Iqbal also speaks of polo legend Retired subedar major Muhammad Zafar Ali Shah whose polo stick and tactics even after decades are “enough to scare us”. The 75-year-old played his first match in Shandur in 1962 and his last match on the same ground in 1993.
“Everything in between shaped me as a player and gave me encouragement,” Shah says. “During Ramazan of 1997, we were playing on Drosh polo ground and I was injured.” Since they did not have a back-up player, Shah underwent minor surgery without any anaesthesia and played the match with 25 stitches on his face.
He has also played a match in Shandur with a broken leg. “They put together some herbs and fixed my leg for the match,” he says, adding, that the important thing was that they won.
“During one match, I even hit a player with my stick unintentionally and was suspended from playing for two years,” he says, and while laughing, adds, “It was a good thing the victim was my own uncle.”
A friend and colleague of Baba-e-Polo Zafar Ali Khan, Shah said the government upgrades the status of polo players based on their performance. “I used to work for forestry; then, I became a jeep driver. Colonel Basharat saw my eagerness and drive for the sport and asked me to join the team,” Shah says. So, he started playing polo without any formal training from the platform provided by Chitral Civil and then as part of Chitral Scouts in 1976.
Shah has played hundreds of polo matches in various regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In grounds from Chitral to Parachinar, Shah has played against teams from Gilgit, PIA, Frontier Regions and the army. It is believed that when Shah mounted on horses like Lucky and Janu, he left his opponents crying.
“In 1997, when I played against the PIA team, the joy of victory was two-fold,” Shah says. He adds that the PIA team had brilliant players like Siraj and Niazi, while Chitral Scouts was the first team to give them a deafening defeat.
“The taste of triumph is accentuated when the opponent team appreciates your victory,” the 75-year-old says. “When former president General Ziaul Haq gave us gold medals and certificates after we won the match against Gilgit in 1986, the defeated team cried.” Shah claims that at first they refused to join them for dinner but later congratulated them, which, he says, was very heartening.
The successes on ground also promoted Shah from a hawaldar and lance naik to the position of subedar. “The subedar is like the captain and climbing the ladder of government positions becomes easy by displaying determination on the ground and winning matches,” Shah says.
Ecstatic with the development of the sport in the region, Shah says the game has developed exponentially over the years.
“There were three teams in Chitral when I started playing polo and the magnitude of the passion for the sport can be gauged from the fact that there are at least 50 teams now,” he says.
Shah’s age never served as an obstacle in the way of his determination and while he does not play matches against teams from other regions anymore, he still plays polo during practice matches.
The polo legend, who started playing the sport as a schoolchild, has never lost a single match. “I’ve been lucky because I always got the best horses,” he said. “After all it is the game of the horse.”
While they definitely do not see eye to eye on many matters, residents of Chitral and Gilgit both agree it isn’t just the players that make a winning team. Chitral owes much of it’s success to it’s remarkable drove of horses.
“There is an era of the Punjabi horse in Chitral now,” Tourism Corporation Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) Coordinator Shahzad Alam says, adding that horses from Punjab are stronger and more suited to play in the weather of Chitral.
Iqbal adds, “Chitral definitely has better horses – we have thoroughbreds and mixed breeds brought in from Punjab.” He says confidence and strength of the horse are of prime significance when choosing one to play polo on. “It is the horse that will run after the ball and make way for itself and its rider on the ground and horses that are purebred or a cross between an Afghan and Punjabi are the best.
“Afghan horses are smaller in size and have less stamina and it is only recently that horses are being bought from Punjab,” veteran polo player Muhammad Zafar Ali Shah said.
Izhar concurs, adding that this year at Shandur Festival, there was one mix bred horse in the G-B team. “The horse was stronger and bigger since he had a Punjabi father or mother.”
The players also said they went on the polo ground in Shandur well in advance so their ponies would get acclimatised to the weather at the elevation. “Horses die, they break their legs, get cold and have severe breathing issues,” Izhar says, adding that it is important to take them on the grounds at least a fortnight before the matches so they get used to the conditions and adapt well.
Iqbal adds that ponies that are selected to play at Shandur are taken extra care of. “We do not practice on them till right before the festival since they require extra fitness and a special diet.”
Polo players also feel their strength goes beyond the horses’ physical form, and is almost of a spiritual nature.
Izhar says polo not only makes you love the animal it is played riding on but creates an unparalleled bond with it.
Earlier, after witnessing his opponents, Gilgit, performing well in the Shandur Polo Festival 2016, 29-year-old Izhar was more determined than ever as he broke into the ground mounted on Cheetah. The horse-lover, who has seen polo being played in his family for four generations, took the tumpukht and scored.
The ground roared with his name as Chitrali supporters stood up to their feet to cheer him on. As the field buzzed with encouragement, his horse Cheetah, quick to pick up the momentum, coordinated with its rider and ran after the ball.
“It’s the horse, it’s the horse,” exclaimed a victorious Izhar as he mounted off Cheetah. Izhar says if your horse is not witty and sharp, there is little you can do to train him.
While the chemistry between the player and the horse is of utmost importance, if the beast is stubborn or weak, victory cannot be achieved, he added. According to Izhar, the horse should be at least a year old at the time of the match. “Usually horses are between three and seven years old and the most important qualities to look for when buying a polo horse are strength, stamina and confidence, not so much their age.”
The polo player owns six horses out of which three belong to the government. “Jirang, Chitomian and Illee have played many matches with me,” Izhar says, adding that they are more than his pets – they are his friends and companions.
“Computer was my grandfather’s horse – the only beast in the history of the sport who played the game for 22 consecutive years.” Every polo horse plays the sport for a few years – approximately for less than five years.
“He was probably the only horse I have seen who understood the game so well and played with a passion that its rider found it hard to keep up,” Izhar says of Computer, who is said to have created fear in all horses on the ‘swordless battlefield’. “Not a single horse from Chitral or Gilgit could compare to his thunder on the ground – Computer never tripped, never fell and remained undefeated.”
“Computer was a sage – he could tell the future of the match before he even stepped out of its stable,” Shahzad Alam, coordinator of Tourism Corporation Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) says. “When he skipped about, danced and left the stable in a chirpy mood in the morning, everyone knew that Chitrali players would be triumphant,” he says. Alam adds if defeat lurked around, Computer would be extremely unwilling to leave its home that day.
The horse was loved by every Chitrali and his tales and stories are famous throughout the region, Alam states.
Folklore and myths
Stories of horses and particularly of horses being mystical creatures are common in the region. Locals believe horses are magnificent beasts that attract a lot of supernatural beings towards themselves. “A horse is high, it is heavenly and royal,” Alam says, adding that he believes without any doubt that fairies and genies visit the animals at night.
Locals believe that when a horse is in the stable at night, it is visited by djinns and fairies who take it for a ride in the skies. “Some take them to enjoy a ride while some take them for transportation purposes,” a hotel worker in Chitral city states.
Iqbal, who used to scoff at such stories, narrates the story of how he went from skeptic to believer: “Gulbadan was a beautiful horse. Every morning I would see its mane braided and I always assumed it was because of the way he slept. However, one night, I was sitting near the stable when I heard Gulbadan pant frantically. He was jumping around as if struggling against something extraordinarily powerful. When I recounted the incident to my family and friends the next day, they spoke about the same djinn/fairy myth which I had little belief in.”
The following day, Iqbal brushed Gulbadan’s mane, kissed its eyes and bid it goodnight. He then kept a wooden block with sharp nails and spikes concealed at the horse’s side of the stable door to prevent it from opening. “When I went to see Gulbadan the next morning, he was still sweaty and his mane was braided as beautifully as it would always be,” Iqbal says, adding it was humanly impossible to open the door or walk or even jump past it to enter the stable. “The door and my barricade was still intact and after that, I partly, subconsciously do believe some beings from a parallel universe do visit or love horses,” he says.
Many polo players expressed dissatisfaction over the role of the government in maintaining the status of the sport in the region.
“The government offers us no support whatsoever – we keep the horses, we feed them, take care of them, but no compensation comes to us,” Ibrar Ali, Chitral polo police team player and uncle of Izhar, says.
He adds that while the government buttressed the game overall, very little grassroots level assistance in terms of horses, facilitation of the sport, monetary assistance and upkeep of polo grounds, exists.
The mehtars (rulers) were avid supporters of the sport. “After Chital acceded to Pakistan, the government gave polo players at least two sacks of wheat grains for their horses till around 1971, after which the support ceased forever,” Ibrar says.
Polo champion Muhammad Zafar Ali Khan told The Express Tribune that during the time of walis, players would receive 840 kilogrammes of straw, wheat grains and chickpeas. “Now there is no compensation or aid – in fact, if the government spent a quarter of what it does for cricket and hockey players, this sport will go viral across the nation,” he says.
“The allowance the owner of a horse gets from the government is only Rs6,000 in Chitral,” Iqbal says, adding that if a polo player does not own a horse, he gets no compensation at all.
He adds that it costs around Rs15,000-Rs20,000 every month to care for a horse. The government’s expenditure in this regard is minimal. “A polo horse does not simply eat grass, it eats wheat grains, chickpeas, salt and brown sugar which are expenditures way beyond the affordability of most people. Besides investing in food and time, there are veterinary costs as well.”
Funds used to be allocated by the government; however, with time, they have dwindled and little if any reach the players today, says Iqbal.
Due to the high cost of maintenance, he adds, the trend of keeping horses is declining. “While people are more thrilled and excited about the sport more than ever, a single festival with little or no support from the government might destroy the fervour the sport enjoys at present.”
A player requesting anonymity says, “There are polo players working for Chitral Levies, Chitral Scouts and the police, but the burden of keeping horses falls on the keepers and owners – an enterprise that people with empty purses could not afford to indulge in.”
Another polo player also requesting anonymity says TCKP founded an association in 1984 to monitor the sport and allot funds. “However, it is a one-man show with no re-election since the last decade and therefore, little or no accountability.”
He urged the government to implement checks and balances and transparency into its system, which would prove beneficial for the sport over all. “The festival increases revenue from the influx of tourists and the region and sport get their due attention and recognition,” he says, adding that it was about time the government did more than publicise songs written for the festival and assist players monetarily.
Muhkamuddin, a resident of Chitral, told The Express Tribune that mehtars had constructed junalis in all big villages of the region. “However, today, despite the presence of government institutions, no preservation and maintenance has taken place,” he says, adding that most polo grounds have been encroached upon.
“The interest in the sport has increased with time,” Muhkamuddin says, “Particularly, once the game became commercialised and job opportunities for people opened.”
However, he says, for the sport to flourish and thrive, attention needed to be paid to the grazing grounds that were decreasing with new constructions. “Upkeep of horses is difficult and expensive and with open spaces making room for buildings, the sport could die a slow death.”
The dark side of the game
Shandur polo ground in Chitral sets the stage for a fierce match where spectators flock to the region to witness the smell of heat, blood and sweat each July. However, while the three-day festival provides a display of intense valour and colour, little or no thought is given to the damage done to the environment.
“I feel like killing myself seeing the heaps of garbage thrown into lakes and streams in Shandur,” enthusiastic environmentalist and Chitral Heritage Environment Protection Society (CHEPS) Chairperson Rehmat Ali Jaffar tells The Express Tribune. “Shandur is not just for polo players but it is a place for everyone and the damage caused to flora and fauna cannot be ignored.”
Ali says celebratory fireworks at the festival this year were remarkable but the noise they caused frightened many animals. “Many horses fainted and wildlife including ibexes, brown bears, golden and white eagles and snow leopards ran away and even the risk of glaciers bursting in the area increased,” he says. He adds that environmentalists believe people should not even speak near glaciers.
Ali says Shandur serves as pastoral grounds for animals that belong to residents of adjoining areas like Laspur. “Sheep, donkeys, yaks, goats and cows feed on land that is polluted and drink water from streams that are inundated with tangible waste, particularly plastic and leftover food with preservatives,” he says, adding that people are ultimately responsible for the deaths of these animals.
Laspur columnist Dr Inayatalluh Faizi says that many animals, particularly black toads and white ducks, die due to the pollution caused by festivities in the region during the event.
“The players wash their jeeps and all the dust and sand gets washed away into streams from which not only cattle belonging to locals but also wildlife, like markhors, drink water,” he says. “The locals take care of the situation but awareness on the part of many government officials is missing,” Faizi adds.
According to Ali, locals of Laspur held a news conference at Chitral Press Club a week prior to the festival to curb the hazards. However, the government has paid little heed to the matter.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director General Dr Bashir Khan tells The Express Tribune that there is no EPA office in Chitral. “The EPA Act, 2014 does not even extend till Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) and our offices in Malakand Division only serve as advisory bodies,” he says. The DG adds that the governor had asked the president to extend the act so that more regions can have implementation of laws but nothing had been done so far.
While Tourism Corporation K-P and Laspur Community Development Organisation (LCDO) collaborate to manage the area, post-festival Shandur dumped with garbage and trash has been left at the mercy of locals.
The coordinator of a non-governmental organisation, Snow Leopard Foundation, Khurshid Ali Shah tells The Express Tribune that on the last day of the festival, they held an awareness campaign in the region. “Shopkeepers, hoteliers and people residing in the valley were taken to the sites dumped with litter and taught about the damage caused to the environment,” he says.
Shah adds that while the K-P wildlife department coordinates with their organisation and with locals, there is an absolute dearth of adequate resources to solve the situation. “Two months after the festival, TCKP has sent a cheque of Rs0.3 million to LCDO but so many species have died already,” he laments.
Shah says it would be wise to allocate sufficient funds and work on conservation prior to the festival so damage to ecology can be minimised.