High Horses

Polo and patriotism in northern Pakistan

The Shandur Polo Festival has become an integral part of the Pakistan Army’s communications strategy in a politically precarious region. PAULA BRONSTEIN / GETTY IMAGES
01 April, 2017

On a warm dawn last July, in Gilgit, a city in northern Pakistan, I sat in a bus packed with fans of a historic sport. “We call it ‘the game of kings, king of games,’” one passenger said.

In most other places in Pakistan, as in India, such statements are typically reserved for cricket. In the country’s northern mountains, however, polo also enjoys immense popularity. Polo competitions are held across the region, from the beginning of spring until the end of summer.

That day, I took a bumpy, nine-hour bus ride up to Shandur Pass, which cuts through the Hindu Kush mountains at an altitude of 3,700 metres above sea level. A plateau called “Shandur Top” stretches out nearby, home to a well-manicured polo field—the highest in the world. The field lies between two cities: Chitral, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan province.

In 1936, when Pakistan was still under British rule, a colonial officer held a polo tournament between teams from Chitral and Gilgit. That tournament began a tradition: the annual Shandur Polo Festival, in which various teams from both provinces face off in matches on Shandur Top, with the final game always being held between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit. When I attended the festival last summer, I saw that, in addition to being a celebration of regional tradition, the event was also a celebration of patriotism and the military. The promotion of the festival has become an integral part of the Pakistan Army’s communications strategy in this politically precarious region.

I reached Shandur the night before the festival’s final match. As I stepped off the bus, I was met by Wajad Ali, an engineering student from Gilgit. “I come here every year with my cousin and my college friends,” Alitold me. The previous year’s tournament had been cancelled due to flooding, he said, “so I wouldn’t have missed this year for anything.”

That night, raucous celebrations rocked the campground near the polo field, where the festival’s roughly 10,000 attendees were staying in tents. The spectators—almost all of them men—had come from Chitral, Gilgit and other places in northern Pakistan. Some had even driven up from Karachi and Lahore. Scattered groups gathered in the campground to sing songs, from traditional regional ditties to Bollywood hits.

The military maintained a strong presence. Security personnel patrolled the camp, and the flags of army units flew on high flagpoles. On a mountain face overlooking the polo ground, a set of rocks had been painted white and arranged into the shape of the logo of the Chitral Scouts: a local unit of the Pakistan Army. That evening, the Chitral Scouts had arranged a musical programme. The performers’ instruments were amplified by massive speakers sitting atop an army van. Hundreds of men gathered near the van to dance.

Polo enjoys immense popularity in the mountainous northern region of Pakistan, especially in the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunknwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. PAULA BRONSTEIN / GETTY IMAGES

It is in the military’s interests to cultivate social harmony in a region where sociopolitical tensions simmer. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, has been prone to insurgency; and Gilgit-Baltistan, the only Shia-majority province in Pakistan, has been plagued by communal strife.

Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have also been embroiled in a political dispute for decades, with both of them claiming the Shandur Pass, citing different colonial documents to support their claims. The festival has been a site for this rivalry in the past. In 2010, Gilgit boycotted the festival, citing the dispute as well as the Pakistan government’s decision to assign the management of the festival to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Still, according to Izhar Hunzai, a researcher at a US government-funded think tank, Shandur “is one of the few remaining secular cultural festivals” in Pakistan. “Despite this provincial border dispute, local people actively participate” in the event, he told me over email. This shows, he said, that “when it comes to common cultural heritage, people are able to discount political quarrels.”

The next morning, before the match began, the Chitral Scouts’ marching band performed. Troopers from the Frontier Corps paraglided in, with green and white parachutes, from a helicopter hovering above. The crowd cheered at this display, but positively erupted when the two polo teams entered the arena. “I have been waiting for this moment for so long,” Ali whispered, craning his neck so as not to miss the kick-off.

Polo was first created in central Asia over two millennia ago, and was brought to South Asia by invaders around the thirteenth century. In the 1800s, British colonialists on the Indian subcontinent learnt the sport and took it to Europe. But the polo played in Shandur, known as freestyle polo, is virtually unrecognisable next to the version of the sport that the British exported. In freestyle polo, for instance, there is no referee, and players do not wear helmets.

Fifteen minutes into the match, one horseman already had a bloodied face due to an accidental blow from an opponent’s mallet. After an intense hour, the game ended with a resounding victory for Chitral.

Suddenly, a wave of trepidation swept over the crowd. A military chopper appeared over the pitch and landed behind the stands. A few minutes later, a plump, moustachioed man in a baseball cap, escorted by dozens of bodyguards, appeared on a platform before us.

The man was the general Raheel Sharif, then the chief of the Pakistan Army. Sharif is credited for conducting Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which targeted various militant groups, especially along the border with Afghanistan. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was one of the areas most affected by the operation.

Sharif praised the crowd for attending the festival. “Your attendance in great numbers in the festival is depictive of a resilient nation,” he declared. “It is a message to the terrorists that we continue to carry forward our traditions.”

According to Imtiaz Gul, an Islamabad-based security analyst, Sharif’s appearance showed the army’s support for peaceful forms of regional pride. “After over a decade of bloody conflict and low morale, the army has managed to restore confidence and sensitised people to use such occasions”—ones like the Shandur festival—“to express pride,” Gul told me over email.

Sharif also spoke about the assistance the army had provided for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, whether through road restoration or relief efforts during floods. He ended his speech by promising that polo grounds of major towns of northern Pakistan would be refurbished, and that the government would provide funding for polo players.

The general was not the first high-ranking Pakistani official to publicly express support for polo. Every year, Ali told me, army officials or government representatives attend the Shandur festival. Prime ministers such as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have gone to it as well. When he was the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf danced with the Chitral polo team on television.

After his speech, Sharif walked down to the pitch to shake the hand of the victorious Chitrali captain. A military official saluted the general and presented him with a folded Pakistani flag, which Sharif kissed.

The ceremony ended and Sharif flew away in his chopper. The crowd scattered across the camp, dismantling tents and scrambling to find room in jeeps driving in opposite directions—some towards Chitral and others towards Gilgit.