Rethinking the Free-style Polo Festival of Shandur

Rethinking the Free-style Polo Festival of Shandur

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A.M.Khan

One of the unique features of the former princely state of Chitral is that i has been a relatively peaceful home to three diverse communities for centuries. Chitral is socio-culturally a touchstone of mutual co-existence, peace, and tranquility. The people o Kalash Valley, the languages and cultures of the region and the picturesque tourist spots havae also been of great interest for centuries. Three popular festivals of the Kalash community are organized annually Bumbret, Birir and Rumbur (names of valleys where the Kalash tribes live), in addition to the Jashn-e-Chitral, Qaqlasht festival and the historically popular festival of Shandur.

Shandur has historically been a pass on the height of 12,000 feet, also  known to be the highest polo ground (3734 meters) in the world popular for free-styled mountainous polo being played since 1936 between Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan (GB).

The word “Polo”, meaning a “wooden ball”, comes from the Balti language, spoken in Baltistan division of GB and parts of the Ladakh area. The game of Polo is played in its most ancient form, some call it the purest form, by the mountainous people of GB and Chitral. The game’s biggest event is the Shandur Festival.

Back in the 6th century Central Asian originated the equestrian sport of polo, which was a training and war-like, game played by tribesman, with hundred men on each side. With the passage of time, Polo became the national game of Persia, and gradually spread to Arabia, Tibet, China, Japan, and South Asia as the conquests of the kings and chieftains spread.

The influential and authoritarian British Political Agent, Major Cobb, who was fond of polo, played the game for the first time in a plain area on the Shandur plateau under moonlight. For this reason, the plain became famous as Muss Junali, or the moon pologround. Muss in Khowar language means Moon, while Junali is the term for the playground.

After 1982 when via jeep-able road Shandur was connected with Chitral and GB its importance and popularity exponentially increased at national and international level. This festival was regularly included into national calendar in the year 1990s, and three days festival was formally scheduled on July 7 for its commencement every year.

Shandur festival was first time cancelled in the year 1999 when both GB and Chitral received hundreds of martyrs as a result of the Kargil war. Later, due to the reservations of GB, differences between GB and KP provincial government on the ownership and administration of the festival on the one hand, as well as the devastating floods in Chitral in Ghizer, and destruction of physical infrastructure, the Shandur festival was cancelled again last year.

Notwithstanding, the 18th amendment in the constitution of Pakistan and transferring of many subjects  including tourism to provincial governments, GB’s boycott of this festival was to register protest against federal government’s decision to assign organisation and management of this event to KP government until 2014.

Making this a successful event, the Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) this has reportedly been working on promoting it by publicity campaign, establishing tourist information centre, and establishing tent village and stalls at Shandur.

This event might have different importance for the government of KP and GB, but the raison d’étre of this event for the players, enthusiasts, and many of the people on both side of Shandur is quite different. They are least concerned about the ownership and management of the festival, and more focused on the successful celebration of the historical event ‘on the roof of the world’. The people of Chitral and GB have cultural, lingual, sporting and even temperamental commonalities they want to see this festival to be organised for jubilation.

Khowar a majority language spoken in Chitral, is also spoken in Ghizer district and common in the other parts of GB, this event brings swelling Khowar speakers together. “The game of kings and the king of games” is very popular in GB and Chitral for centuries and it brings jubilation and fanfare to the people once in year at Shandur. It is also for the people of both GB and Chitral to claim more their emotional bond with this event than the ownership of the place. Having been fond of festivities and bustle they want to attend this event, meeting their friends, and returning to pleasing and impressive beauties of nature coupled with diversity of beings from around the world under this roof.

A number of people on both side of Shandur see this place ripe for their small business prospects during three days event. Withdrawing the regime of No Objection Certificate (NOC) conditioned by KP government for international visitors can attract more foreign tourists this year for festival. The devastating floods and earthquake last year has destroyed physical infrastructure in Chitral baldly. It is hoped that the festival will also invite the attention of national and international visitors’ interest in the rehabilitation of the area.

It is hoped that the two governments will work together for the successful organisation of this event which has been rescheduled again to kick off on 22nd July this year.

 For governments the purpose of the event might be spotlighting tourist spots, a revenue generating event which needs international publicity, and showcasing the soft image of Pakistan, but for the people of GB and Chitral is a historical and cultural legacy of keeping the mountainous free-styled polo in its purest form on the roof of the world.  For them and other tourists it is a place of enjoying folk music, traditional dance, adventure, trekking, trout fishing, rafting, paragliding, meeting and greeting with friends at Shandur. Let’s not deprive them of the joys and festivity.

The writer is M.Phil Research Student in the University of Peshawar. He tweets at AMKhan9

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