Muhammad Arshad Munir
Shandur is a serene and picturesque mountain pass, located at height of 12,467 feet (3800 meters), in northern areas of Pakistan, connecting Chitral with Gilgit Baltistan. It is located in Chitral District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It is often referred as the ‘Roof of the World’ and is famous for annual Shandur Polo festival which is held in July every year. This festival includes Folk music and dancing and a camping village at the site. Shandur Polo ground is the highest ground in the world located at 12,139 feet (3,700 meters).
Polo- “the game of kings and the king of games” has been a very popular game in northern areas of Pakistan especially Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and Chitral for centuries. Though all the valleys of the area including Gilgit, Skardu, Hunza, Diamer, Ghizer, Shigar, Laspor, Mastoj have at least one local team and a polo ground, where locals people play polo, Shandur Polo festival has gained international fame due to wild scenic beauty and the game being played at the highest altitude polo ground.
The word “Polo”, a Balti language word, means a “wooden ball”. Polo is a team sport, played on horseback. The objective is to score goals against the opposite team. Players score by driving a small white wooden ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet. Now a days, there are six players to each side, but this is by no means a rule in local polo game. In its original form, there was no limit to the number of players and no time limit. Whichever team scored nine goals first was the winner. The present form of the game lasts for one hour with ten minutes break, with a team of six players on each side.
The game of Polo is played by the mountainous people in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan in its most ancient form; some call it the purest form. It is said that Ali Sher Khan Anchan a famous Balti King of Maqpoon Dynasty, in 15th century, started the game of Polo at Shandur top. It was partly a game and partly a training meant for training the soldiers as cavalry for wars.
Freestyle polo is only played in this part of the world, providing an opportunity of joy and entertainment to the locals as well as the foreign tourists. During the polo tournament thousands of people come from across the world to witness the freestyle polo matches. Youngsters, elders and even children from across the region come here to attend the festival. The event provides a lot of enjoyment to locals, they eagerly await the occasion throughout the year, particularly after the long harsh winter.
A tourist tent village with restaurant facilities springs up during the tournament. Merchants from Peshawar, Chitral and Gilgit set up souvenir and folk craft shops. The tournament offers visitors and opportunity to mix with the locals.
Activities at Shandur includes dance and music performances by different groups, trout fishing, mountaineering, trekking, hiking and of course, horse riding. Crystal clear lakes, snow covered mountains, alpine flowers and vast stretches of green grass, are added attractions.
Though the game was played in that area since centuries, it got national and international fame when Shandur was connected with Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan via jeepable road in 1982, and Shandur polo festival started being organized on yearly basis. This festival is now regularly included into national events calendar since 1990s, and three days festival is formally scheduled in July every year.
The Shandur Pass lies almost midway between Chitral and Gilgit on a jeep road, travelling on which itself is adventurous, to say the least. The distance from either side is 170 kms. One can reach to Chitral or Gilgit by Pakistan International Airline’s flight from Peshawar and Islamabad.
People of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral are a historical and cultural legacy of keeping the mountainous free-styled polo in its purest form, at the roof of the world and government of Pakistan has provided them opportunities to keep the spirit alive.
-The writer is the Press Counselor, Pakistan Consulate Jeddah