Featured Image: Shandur Pass Polo Festival, photo by Shipton Trekking, the polo ground is at 12,300 feet (3800 metres) and the mountains rise up to 8,000 feet higher
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 2 August 2021
This is the fourth article on our trip up and down the KKH. The others are 1 The Karakorum Highway (KKH), 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 3 Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain, 5 The Hunza Valley, 6 Rain, Danger Sust 7 Passu Paradise. The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
Extreme Polo in Gilgit and surrounding areas on the KKH 1995: Our Trip 3
We arrived in Gilgit on 18 May 1995 at 7pm in the evening after a long day’s travel from Besham and were snagged or touted at the bus stop by the delightful Mr Ibrahim owner of a new lodge called the Mountain Refuge (more of whom later).
We enjoyed our stay in Gilgit marred only slightly by intermittent rain. We even hired a motor-bike. Though the state of the roads meant that we could not travel as far as we would have liked and bits kept falling off the bike, sometimes making the travel uncomfortable.
We left Gilgit on 27 May when the rain seemed to have set in permanently. Surprisingly, at our next stop in the Hunza Valley the rain stopped and we had delightful weather during our stay there, though the rain began again immediately we left and we saw almost no scenery up to the Pakistan border post at Sost.
Whilst in Gilgit, one of the things we most enjoyed was the series of polo matches in a tournament several of which we managed to see. These matches would eventually lead up to the famous Shandur Pass match in July.
History of Polo
Polo probably began as a simple game played by Iranian equestrian nomads in Central Asia. In time polo became a Persian national sport played by the nobility. Women played as well as men.
The first recorded tournament was in 600 BC (between the Turkomans and the Persians – the Turkomans were victorious). The name is supposed to have originated from the Tibetan ‘pholo’ meaning ‘ball’ or ‘ballgame’. Although all of this is debatable.
The modern game was derived from British tea-planters observing it in Manipur (located between Burma & India). The first official rules were not created until the 19th century by an Irish Captain in the 13th Hussars and the modern International Rules are based on them. The size of the polo pitch (nearly 10 acres in area; the largest field in organised sport) has not changed since one was built in Isfahan Persia in the 1500s.
Each team has four players and each player must have at least one spare horse. The game is played over 4, 6 or 8 chukkas. Each chukka lasts 7 minutes with a break of 3 minutes between chukkas and a five-minute break at half time. More chukkas normally require more spare horses.
Polo mallets are made of wood. The head is of a hardwood called tipa and the shaft of varying types of wood and flexibility. The mallet must be exactly 2 foot six inches in length. The ball was originally bamboo, then wood and has mainly been fibreglass since 1990. The object of the game is to score goals by hitting the ball through the goal posts. The game is fast, furious and exciting. There are a range of tactics, strategies, allowed manoeuvres and fouls.
As with most equestrian sports the need for a number of horses and equipment make polo an expensive sport to play.
This is the same with polo played in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The upkeep of the horses is expensive. Although less horses are required.
Denise used to play a game in Australia called polocrosse (a cross between polo and lacrosse) which is more widely played and is less expensive than polo because it requires only one horse. Another similarity with extreme polo is that the game is also played with six players on a smaller ground.
Extreme Polo in Gilgit
The history of polo in Gilgit and the Northern Areas of Pakistan (now called Gilgit Baltistan) is not so ancient. The Smithsonian magazine says the Persians brought the game to the Chitral, Gilgit Baltistan area a thousand years ago, but without providing evidence. It may have been later, but more than 500 years ago.
The Shandur Pass Polo Match
The ‘grudge match’ between Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan on a polo ground constructed on the Shandur Pass, instigated by the baltit Raja of Skardu who built the ground, has been held on 7-9 July annually since 1936. It is the most famous extreme polo match in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and is a tourist attraction. It has been so since a jeep-able road was constructed from Gilgit to Chitral over the Shandur Pass in 1982.
The meeting at the Shandur Pass at 3,800 metres (12,300 feet) is the highest regular polo match of any form anywhere in the world.
In 1995 there was an amateur element to the game in Gilgit Baltistan that is less evident now. We would have loved to go to Chitral when we were in Gilgit, but transport was exceedingly difficult or prohibitively expensive. Attending, the polo match on the Shandur Pass would have been easier, but it wasn’t until early July by which time we were in India.
In 1995, the change from needing to be a seasoned traveller to reach remote locations was beginning to be a thing of the past.
I wrote in my journal:
I think that things have changed in Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’. The remotest parts of Earth are now more accessible to group tours and those on annual vacation than they are to long-term independent travellers.
Today, as with the Kashgar Sunday Market and other remote locations, the Shandur Pass polo festival is something else entirely. It is too easy to get to and you can pay a tour company to take you there.
Gilgit Polo in 1995
We felt in 1995 that, although treachery and murder no longer existed as blatantly, the polo we experienced was not so much different to that experienced as observers by British officers, such as Algernon Durand (mentioned previously) in the late 1880s and 1890s.
We came upon an impromptu polo match just out of Napur village on our way to Barmas village above Gilgit. There were five small boys riding their fathers’ donkeys, with a gaggle of hangers on. The pace of the game was fast and furious and the play even wilder than the real thing on a Gilgit polo ground. They’d made their own polo sticks out of roots and whipped their donkeys on furiously. They could even make them jink viciously sideways. The donkeys seemed to be enjoying the game as much as the boys. The boys were also more skillful proponents of the game than some on the lesser adults’ teams in the Gilgit competition.
Extreme Polo in Gilgit
In town we went to our first polo match. We were seen and we saw people that we recognised subsequently around town. For example, the guide in the red polartec jacket, whom we met at the New Golden Peak Hotel.
The hotelier held this man up as an example of an uneducated man who was still a guide, while his friend and contemporary Nazir Sabir — an educated man — was now a member of Parliament. That our guide friend, who was a pleasant man, didn’t hit the hotel keeper is one of the great mysteries of the universe.
The first polo match we watched was an exciting match and the players were good, but the second bogged down.
The match is played on a long narrow ground bounded by stone walls. There are six players a side and the game is played for an hour (with no remounts) or until one side has scored ten goals. After half an hour the teams swap directions.
There are few rules, but in our first game we did see blood and two players sent off in disgrace. It happened like this: one player rode the other off the ball perhaps too roughly. The other incensed hit him over the head with his polo mallet. The other man retaliated and they circled on their horses whacking one another with whip and mallet. Blood started to flow then they got off their horses and continued with fists until spectators and the other players broke them apart. They were sent off both looking sheepish and the other players and officials looked condemnatory.
At the end of the game the winning team do a victory dance in the middle of the field surrounded by admiring fans.
According to Algernon Durand (The Making of a Frontier 1899), it should be the losing team who dance, but otherwise the game hasn’t changed much in one hundred years. Durand says of Astore, (the last pleasant stop in the long trek from Kashmir before descending to the Indus and the dangerous crossing and hot dry marches):
The Astor ground is about one hundred and fifty yards long by twenty yards wide, and it is one of the best. Any number of men play, the usual limit is ten-a-side, usually the local raja or the most important guest, dashes down the ground at full speed, carrying the ball and followed by the whole mob of players, all shouting madly; the band which is seated outside the boundary wall at the centre of the ground, plays its loudest, the lookers-on yell and whistle… and, without checking his speed for a moment, the holder of the ball throws it in the air and hits it as it falls. The hit should be made in the centre of the ground, and a good man will often hit a goal.
The game is very rough and ready, and each goal hit produces a wild melee, as the striker or his side must be able to pick up the ball for the goal to count. The man who has hit the goal will throw himself off his pony and try to pick up the ball, while the other side with fine impartiality, hit him or the ball, or ride over him, in their endeavours to save the goal. Why each game does not end in sudden death or a general free fight I could never imagine, but a serious accident is rare.
In my journal, I replied:
In the Gilgit competition the latter free for all after the ball has passed the goal post has been dropped but otherwise the game is exactly the same and a wild unconstrained melee to the untrained eye. The standard varies considerably but the best players are amazingly skilful with both horse and mallet. We would have loved to attend the annual polo match at the Shandur Pass which is when the best six players from Gilgit and the best six from Chitral meet in a series of games to see who is best.
We met a man after the polo, who’d recognised us because of our enthusiastic barracking. It helped us to get to know a few locals. We’d enjoyed the game volubly and become noted or notorious because of that. On the whole the locals (men) appeared to appreciate us because we endorsed their sport.
On another day:
On the way down from Barmas village we caught the end of a terrific polo game, whose progress we’d monitored from up high by the trumpets and drums of the mood band and from the shouts of the crowd on the last half of our walk.
The old polo ground with its dirt surface and older walls is more atmospheric than the other in the bazaar. The second match was between Army B and Yasin and also very exciting because although the Army established an early lead, Yasin fought and slowly pegged them back. The game ended 6 to 5. The Army just squeaked in.
Unfortunately, the heavy rain continued and it was time to move on. We decided to remain for the final of the polo, but it was cancelled because of the rain and we headed off to Karimabad in Hunza.
I’m not sure that the Northern Pakistan game should rightly be called extreme polo by journalists and writers. There are many similar extreme horse events around the world, such as, Buzkashi in Afghanistan and Central Asia, the Mongol Derby, Siena’s Palio or even the 5-star International horse trials.
However, the type of polo played in Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral is certainly unique and culturally of immense importance. A partnership between man and horse. Hopefully, as in polo in Persia, women may be able to participate one day.
Key Words: Polo, Extreme Polo, donkey polo, Gilgit, Gilgit Baltistan, Chitral, Shandur Pass, Karakorum Highway, KKH, Polo History, Persia, Central Asia, Algernon Durand, Buzkashi the Mongol Derby, Palio Siena, International horse trials
Tours to Shandur Pass Polo Festival
I’ve used photos of the Shandur Pass Polo Festival from Shipton Trekking (no longer online) and TheTravelBoss.com so in repayment I should give them a plug. Shipton Trekking (no longer online) looks like quite an interesting, specialist Pakistan, adventure company. TheTravelBoss is an online magazine that amalgamates travel from around the world and has a large section on festivals and events.
The History of Polo
Wikipedia gives a comprehensive overview of the the history of polo and of the modern game.
Historic UK gives a short summary overview.
The Polo Museum also gives an overview of the history of the sport.
Other Aspects of Polo
La Polo is a very interesting Indian site on everything to do with polo the modern game
La Polo on the Polo Mallet
La Polo on the Ball
While we were in Hyderabad, India after Pakistan in 1995 staying with my friend Rukmini, Denise and I managed to sneak on advice into a military polo tournament. The grounds were immaculate. This was International polo to a high standard and just different from the extreme polo practiced in Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral.
Gilgit Polo has a Facebook page
The Shandur Pass Polo Festival Shandur Pass (3800 m; 12,300 ft)
The Smithsonian Magazine has a 2007 article on the Shandur Pass Extreme Polo
Wikipedia also has a page on the Shandur Polo Festival
La Polo also has a nice photo essay on the festival
You Tube Videos
Polo at the old Gilgit ground
This video (52 secs) whilst not showing you an exciting game, a lively crowd, or even the goal gives you a feel for polo on the ground at Gilgit.
Shandur Pass Polo Festival
This video by Tabish Sethi gives a nice sense of place and feel for the Shandur Polo Festival. An amazing occasion.
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