Every July, the Shandur Pass in northern Pakistan is the setting for a polo festival played to rules eight hundred years old on what is, perhaps,the highest polo ground in the world.(Shandur Polo Festival – July 7 to 9)
During the 1920s, the ruler of Moskuj, the Hindukush highland between Chitral and Gilgit, was told by his Mir, or king, to promote integration within his realm through a polo tournament between the best players.
The British Resident at the time, Col Evelyn Hey Cobb, a keen polo player himself, came up with the idea of holding the tournament in the Shandur Pass, approximately 11,000ft above sea level in what is now northern Pakistan. The site is described dramatically as being on the ridge between Heaven and the descent to Hell.
Col Cobb felt that, because the moon seemed so close to earth, his dream of playing polo in the light of a full moon could be realised. It was agreed that the games should be held between the best teams from Chitral and Gilgit, and played following the centuries-old rules of Ali Sher Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan. This meant that a game would last for an hour, with a short break between two 30-minute chukkars. Each player would be allowed only one horse for the duration of the match, and stoppages would be allowed only for serious injuries to a horse or player. Should, for some reason, a horse or player cease to play, his opposite number in the other team would have to leave the field. If the ball went out of play, it must be thrown back immediately by one of the spectators. Lastly, each team should consist of six players with, as already noted, one horse per man.
The consequences of these loose conditions were predictable – seriously injured horses and players, even deaths, were the order of the day in the annual tournament held every June.
The polo ground in the Shandur Pass is smaller in width and breadth than the conventional field, being 60yd wide and 220yd long. Also alien to a modern western player would be the 2ft high stone wall which surrounds the ground. In ice hockey, such a wall could prove advantageous – in polo, it could lead to serious injuries in the event of a fall.
The rules recall ancient legends – for instance, how, after a successful goal the scorer can dictate the continuity of a game. He picks up the ball and carries it back at full gallop in his lap to the centre line, from where he will throw it into the air and try to hit it and score a goal at the opposite end of the field. As in contemporary polo, ends change side after a goal is scored.
There is an interesting legend attached to polo in northern Pakistan, dating perhaps from the days before history was recorded. It appears that a king begged the gods to give him back his missing wife.The gods, in return, made it a condition that the king must sacrifice his two sons. They gave him a fast horse – it ‘brought mountains together and split the valleys’ in the tale – and sent him to a lost valley in Baltistan, some two hundred miles from Shandur. There, so the story continues, he arrived with the heads of his sons, andhad the task of hitting them both, at fast gallop, with his polo stick into an opening in the mountains. If he succeeded, he would regain his missing queen. Most extraordinary is that, to this day, beyond a very small opening in a mountain in Baltistan, near Kaphulu, is a real polo field which is identical to that in the legend.
Of course, in view of these ancient tales, it is not surprising that polo, whose roots go back to 600BC, and was brought to India and the Himalayas from Persia, is said once to have been played with the heads of sheep, goats and other animals. In Genghis Khan’s day even the severed heads of conquered enemies are said to have been used.
The Shandur Pass is regarded as being ‘half-way to Heaven’, although long gone are the days in which this could refer to Heaven, as in the sense of gods caring for polo, or Hell as in the conquered soldiers who had to march through it.
There is, however, an alternative meaning to visitors and players in modern times. The approach by jeep – if one owns such a vehicle – from Chitral in the west takes a good nine hours. From Gilgit, east of the Pass, the journey may take probably thirteen hours. With few exceptions, the journey leads through the paradise-like green and cultivated highlands. But one is constantly aware, on the dusty and rocky drive, that the wheels of the jeep can be two inches away from an abyss - from ‘hell’. This nerve-wracking journey along narrow, stony paths from which even the vertigo-free mountain goats retreat, will worsen when suddenly another jeep appears from the opposite direction. Both drivers risk dangerous manoeuvres in an attempt to pass each other.
It says much for the attraction of the Shandur Pass polo festivals that the players of the six invited teams – three from either side of the Pass - must also endure this dangerous trek. Even more alien to the modern western player is the fact that the ponies of participating teams must face a five day march. In order to acclimatise the ponies – and only one per player is allowed, it should be remembered – small training games are held every night, when camps have been made on the trail.
Unfortunately, not everyone arrives safely. Every year, including 2001, several deaths or serious injuries are recorded en route. Those who were fortunate enough to avoid the several hundred metre fall ‘into hell’ arrive dust-covered at the Pass and, light-headed in the thin air, feel themselves ‘half-way to Heaven’ indeed.
With every day bringing the historic tournament closer, more and more people arrive. Before long, the empty Hindukush landscape is transformed into a bustling, scent-filled marquee town. Until the final on the Sunday, when the two ‘A’ teams from Chitral and Gilgit meet, in excess of ten thousand spectators, who somehow appeared from nowhere, will be camping out in temperatures that reach -10C at night and +40C during the day.
There are also hundreds of police in combat gear and heavily-armed soldiers holding apart the supporters of each side. On one side of the field the fans of Gilgit settle down in their camp – on the other, the followers of Chitral. In between are the neutral street pedlars, chefs and conmen trying their luck at earning a few rupees.
The game of games is ready to begin. The fans have taken their seats around the polo field on rocks, hills and other natural grandstands. The players, strong and aggressive, exchange terse but friendly handshakes and wish each other good luck. The sticks, for once, must not be allowed to get between the legs of the ponies.
After dancers, drummers and the bagpipe band have given their best, and General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan, has declared the game officially open, the final gets under way. There is a timekeeper – the only official, as umpires and referees are non-existent. The game is fast – tremendously fast. The Pakistani-bred Punjabi and Afghan Badakshani ponies, both the result of breeding from Himalayan mountain ponies and English thoroughbreds, are ridden in a wild style, with a lot of skill and at full speed through the mêlée. A total oftwelve players are not afraid to use their sticks to hit not only the ball but also, and vehemently, the arms and shoulders of their opponents.
Broken arms and ribs do not stop the players, after an interval for bandaging and splints, to continue the game. The final was won, just short of the one-hour time limit, with a goal from Gilgit. Of course, afterwards, all barriers came down, and the heavily-armed and sometimes baton-wielding police did not manage to prevent the masses from flooding onto the field. Nevertheless, they succeeded in getting President Musharraf to present the cup to Bulbul Shan, captain of Gilgit, in front of thousands of jubilant fans, who then joined in the victory dance and carried the players on their shoulders from the ground.
It should be remembered that the victors, after the celebrations, had again a life-threatening two-day journey home by jeep, and the ponies a four-day journey down from the Shandur Pass.