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    Polo – The Sport of the Hindukush – By Prof. Israr ud Din

    Polo – The Sport of the Hindukush – By Prof. Israr ud Din

    Polo or ‘Istor Ghal’ (meant game on the horse back) has been played in the Hindu Kush valleys for centuries. According to most authorities Polo came to these valleys from Persia where, according to records, it was played in the time of king Darius. But the actual origin of the game goes back to Ancient Egypt where it used to be practiced as folk fertility rites in pre-historic times in which thousands of men took part as a side. The objective of such rites was to persuade local gods to make the crops grow and in this way conflicts between summers and winters were dramatized ritually with the ball as a symbol of fertility. From Egypt, where the ceremonies were performed on foot, the game spread to Persia where the Persian horsemen, in the course of time converted the religious rites into a secular game. From Persia it spreads eastwards, through Turkestan and Tibet, to China and Japan and from Tibet to Gilgit and Chitral valleys.It is also assumed that Chitral inherited Polo directly from the Persians some two thousand years back when this whole region was under the Achemenian Empire. This belief is based on the fact that the Chitrali word ‘Julani’ used for polo ground, is derived from the Persian ‘Julan Gah’.

    Thus Polo is the most ancient game in the world and many games such as, hockey, cricket, golf etc. in which ball and stick are used, are derived from this game. The word polo is taken from Tibetan ‘peelu’ used for ball. The Khowar ‘plinju’ used exclusively for polo ball and Tibetan ‘peelu’ seems to have some common origin. The Khowar words for balls, other than polo, are ‘poth’ and ‘bamphu’, therefore, the introduction of polo from Tibet into these valleys can also be a possibility.

    Polo is the national sports of the people of Chitral and Gilgit – Baltistan. It is in these valleys that the game is played closest to its original form with a minimum rules and therefore is a real enjoyment to watch polo in these regions. The game is commonly played to the music band comprising a big drum, a couple of kettledrums and two or three clarinets. Different tunes are played at different times and for different players on the occasion of ‘tampuq’ a real spectacle to enjoy. ‘Tampuq’ is the occasion when goal is scored and the scorer, with the ball in his hand, gallops to the center of the field, throws it in the air and strikes it a mighty blow with his polo stick as it falls and usually the ball describing a parabola in the air before it finally touches the ground. There are five to six players on each side and the duration of the game is forty to sixty minutes, with some break in between.

    One must give credit to local rulers and princes of these regions who have been patrons of the game through centuries which helped the game to survive to this day. Many of the rulers themselves used to be good players of polo and all of them encouraged others to play polo. After accession to Pakistan, many Pakistani civil officials e.g., Nawabzada Mohammad Ayub Khan, Syed Imran Shah, Nasru Minaallah Sardar Hizbullah Khan, Shakeel Durrani and Javaid Majid took special interest in the promotion of polo by encouraging polo players through stipends, horse allowances and other benefits. The establishment of District Council has in 1980s also helped greatly to promote polo. The services of then Chairman of the District Council, Prince Mohayud Din, to the cause of polo will always be remembered.

    The polo season in the district starts in March. Previously the first day of the season used to commence on the 21st March, Nauroz day of the Persian relic. But now it has been changed to the 23rd March, or the Pakistan Day celebrations. The season continues till October, with a month break in July and August when the horses are sent to the upper pastures. Long ago every year many tournaments were held in Chitral in May, June and September under different banners called Commissioner Tournament, PIA Tournament, IGFC (Inspector General Frontier Corps) Tournament and the District Council Tournament, in each of which more than thirty teams from all parts of Chitral took part. Lately, one very exciting annual feature of the region has been the Shandur Polo Tournament which is played between the polo teams of Chitral and the Northern Areas on the 12000 feet high Shandur Pass. The tournament is played every year in the 2nd week of the July.

    Chitral history mentions that first official polo matches at Shandur were held in 1914. This was during a visit of the upper Chitral by the then ruler, H.H. Shujaul Mulk, who was camping there for a week during the last week of July, 1914. On this occasion a British Political officer at Gilgit along with the Raja of Gizar, Late Murad Khan, also came there to pay homage to King Shuja. At that time the polo ground had not been constructed and polo was played on the rough turf. The Polo Ground was constructed in 1936 on the initiative of a British Administrator at Gilgit, Evelyn Hey Cobb, who with consent of the Chitral ruler, ordered a Kaka Khail Mian from Chitral, named Mian Niat Qabool, to construct the Polo Ground. He, with the help of local Chitrali people, constructed the ground. Mr. Cobb was the first to play on the ground during a moonlit night. The ground was thus named ‘Mas Junali’ which in Khowar means Moonlit Polo Ground.

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     (It is worth mentioning here that the moonlit nights at the serene environment of Shandur are an extra source of enjoyment for nature loving people).

    Major Cobb was a great fan of Polo and initiated the annual polo Tournaments between Chitral and Gilgit players and since then, though with the certain breaks at times because of various reasons, the feature continues till to-date. However, after 1980s it has turned into an International annual festival attracting visitors not only from various parts of Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan, but also from rest of Pakistan and other foreign countries. The festival, besides Polo matches, has added attractions of Golf Tournament, Trout Fishing Competition, and equestrian events. Fortunately during the last thirty to forty years, the Govt. of Pakistan, the Provincial Governments, several private firms etc. have been sponsoring these tournaments which are playing important role for the promotion of this game. On various occasions the Presidents, Prime Ministers and other dignitaries of the Central and Provincial governments have been present as Chief Guests to watch final of Polo Tournaments and to give prizes which shows governments interest in the game.

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    To conclude, I reproduce here an excerpt from a scholarly article by WALTRAUD TOROSSIAN BRIGASKY, an Austrian participant of the 3rd Hindu Kush Cultural Conference, held in Chitral in 1995, for your general interest. (Ref. Proceedings of the Third International Hindu Kush Cultural Conference, 1908, OUP, Karachi, page 504).

    “At present there are no permanent arrangements to provide ongoing support and encouragement for this sport. But despite this fact, still, nowadays, one can find a lot of people in these areas who are passionately fond of polo. There are even those who look upon playing it as one of the chief occupations for which they were sent into this world. Good players and great matches are remembered and talked about for generations.

    Polo is an important part – if not the most important – of these people’s living culture. One only has to watch a game of polo in Gilgit, Skardu, or Chitral, and this becomes obvious. Neither football, hockey, cricket, nor any other sports attract larger masses than polo. It is on the polo ground where people discover their identity: there they feel united and strong. Here one has to realize that polo is a lifestyle, a passion, a powerful demonstration of the living culture. In a society which is experiencing a period of social fragmentation and disintegration of values and institution, these aspects should not be underestimated.

    Like no other sport today, polo is not only an important regional game but also part of the national cultural heritage. As with other desirable things that the people living here want to preserve as a common human heritage, the continuity of polo requires sustainable arrangements. This could be achieved by creating a permanent institution with enough financial backing for the promotion of polo as a unique sport and cultural heritage. Unless continued attention and encouragement is provided, this unique sport will soon become history in these areas. Pakistan is now the only country in the world where the original game is still played. It would be a pity if we were to allow this game to die because with it would die a part of the culture here. The loss would leave us all poorer”.

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