RIVAL players from the Chitral Scouts and Chitral Police disputing the ball at the Mulki Polo Tournament in Chitral this May.—Photo by writer
RIVAL players from the Chitral Scouts and Chitral Police disputing the ball at the Mulki Polo Tournament in Chitral this May.—Photo by writer

POLO is in our blood, said the young Prince of Chitral. I was at the district polo stadium, taking pictures of the game.

He sat alone in a sofa perhaps because the crowd knew him and knew not everyone could share a seat with a prince. Deplorably ignorant of the history of the former princely state and the royal lineage of the man, I found myself sitting next to the prince who I had taken for a potential “source” for my story.

How was I to tell the royal from the subjects? Our prince was dressed like anyone else in the stadium, in light blue shalwar qameez and a charcoal grey waistcoat.

I guess you could say I am not your standard paparazzi. Then again, Chitral — its problems and personages — has never “trended” in my neck of the woods and our media, social or conventional. The district and its issues are as away from our imagination as the place is from our power-centres.

I caught a polo player — mallet poised mid-air to hit the ball — with my camera and turned happily to the prince: “What does polo mean to you?”

Had I known, I would have prefaced the question with, “Your Highness”. My ignorance was met with royal equanimity. The young prince seemed comfortable with impropriety on part of strangers, even when his people revered him as “a custodian of the royal heritage”, bearing the title Mehtar — like the Wali, the Nawab and the Akhund in other princely states.

Men from his family, the ruling Katur Dynasty, has held that title since 1700. To them, he represents an illustrious past, its crumbling remains standing at the heart of the city in the form of the old Royal Fort where he lives.

Polo is in our blood. Around you, you see an entire city turned up to watch the game — fists pumping, legs thumping to cheer on players — and you think: Shahzada Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir has a point.

He may have spoken for his people but if you know polo, you also know the game has royal roots. In Gilgit, there is a verse inscribed on a stone tablet at the city’s polo ground: “Let other people play at other games. The king of games is still the game of kings.”

While polo’s origin is obscured by time, what is known is that it was played to train the king’s cavalry in China, Mongolia and ancient Persia. Mughal Emperor Babar was deft at polo and Qutubuddin Aibak died when he fell off a polo-pony. As back as the 10th century, Persian poet Firdousi spoke of it in Shahnama. And Omar Khayyam in his Rubbayat:

“In the cosmic game of polo you are the ball.

The mallet’s left and right becomes your call.

He who causes your movements, your rise and fall,

He is the one, the only one, who knows it all.”

Some accounts speak of soldiers taking polo to the battleground, lancing heads of rival generals to declare victory in a battle.

Old prints show Mongolian women playing polo with enemy-heads. Here in the mountainous north, with its negligible crime rate and reputation for peace, that vision seems shocking. But in the past they did things differently. From the heads of generals to goat-heads, and later the mallet and the ball, it was in these parts that polo was perfected to its present “civilised” form.

The British discovered it here in northwestern India and exported it to west. Their political agent in the princely state of Chitral, bearing the title “Mulki”, used to organise annual tournaments.

Sir Aural Stein, the British-Hungarian traveller who came here between 1906 and 1908, writes in the Ruins of Desert Cathay: “On the afternoon following my arrival, I first met the Chief of Chitral as his guest at a game of polo played on the picturesque ground a little below the offices of the agency. It was a pleasure to watch the plucky play of riders in whose valleys the noble game has been the honoured pastime for many centuries.”

The tournaments then turned into festivals and they still are: two each in Gilgit, Ghizer, Yasin (in Gilgit-Baltistan) and Chitral every year, and the one at Shandur with polo “on the roof of the world”. Although played across the world, Pakistan’s north remains something of a Mecca to polo-enthusiasts and a source of great pride to locals.

Famous polo player Shahzada Sikandar-ul-Mulk stops by to greet the Mehtar. A scion of the royal family, Sikandar has led the Chitral Polo Team to victory at Shandur in the past. “None other than the legend himself,” says the prince, by way of introduction.

While polo tournaments have been regularly held through the years, the original “Mulki Cup Polo Tournament” was discontinued in 1968 after Chitral became part of Pakistan. This year, it was rebooted, with teams competing from across the district. “It is a warm-up to the game at Shandur in July,” said the prince.

Watching the riveted spectators and players in the field, one wonders at polo’s potential to become an international sport with Pakistan at its heart. Polo’s popularity could be gauged from the fact that over 50 teams from remote villages in Chitral and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa played in the Mulki tournament.

I know little about the game and its rules, even less about swinging mallets while riding chargers. But you don’t have to in order to experience the adrenaline-rush this game of kings induces.

When the prince said polo was part of culture in northern Pakistan — its people not enthusiastic about cricket but excited by polo even when they didn’t know how to play — he may also have spoken for me. Winston Churchill, a polo devotee, said: “A polo handicap is a person’s ticket to the world.”

I know my newly-conceived love for polo will be my ticket to Northern Pakistan till the scenic valleys start trending here for the potential of its people and polo to earn Pakistan spurs in the game.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018