Manzoor Ali (AJE)
It is an unusual sight to watch players trying to manoeuvre the heavy yaks.
They often fall down while going after the ball and go round and round the animal in order to get on top again, much to the amusement of the crowd laughing their hearts out over the struggle.
Yak polo is played in north-west Pakistan – the Broghil pass in Chitral district – and is a relatively new entrant in the world of sports but is soaking up a global audience.
Broghil is surrounded by lofty mountains, situated at about 12,500 feet in the extreme north-east of Chitral. The nearest town is 240km away. Here, the Hindukush, Karakorum and Pamir jostle for space. In stark contrast to the past, this remote region has become known for unique sporting events like freestyle horse and yak polo.
The Shandur polo festival in Chitral was the largest sporting attraction across the Hindukush-Karakorum region until a few years ago. Now, it has a new rival in yak polo.
Since 2005, yak polo has become the main attraction of a local festival called ‘Jashan-e-Broghol’ held every July for the last 15 years. This event took shape due to efforts of local youth’s aim of promoting tourism in this far-off region.
Umer Rafee, president of the Chiantar Welfare Society, was the brain behind the festival that included events of the Buzkushi, horse polo, donkey polo, yak race among others.
“The aim of starting this event was to highlight the tourism potential of the area, one of the most beautiful areas of the country with its pristine lakes, glaciers and huge swaths of pastures,” Rafee told Al Jazeera.
Symbol of celebration
“Yak polo has now become the main attraction of the festival. Yak, being a wild animal, is first domesticated in Broghil when it’s two years old. The Wakhis pierce its nose, pass a rope called nash through the piercing and then the animal is trained to move at the whims of the rider in a training period spanning over a year.”
For the sport’s purpose, yaks aged five to eight are used. Yak polo is largely modelled after the freestyle polo that is played across Hindukush-Karakorum region. A team comprises mostly six players, while the game is divided into halves spanning 20-30 minutes each.
The event has become a symbol of the celebration of Wakhi culture.
“This year, around 1,500 people visited Broghil on the eve of event, including women,” added Rafee.
The locals also tend to regard this event as a celebration of the yak, due to animal’s importance to the area’s economy. Its hair are used to prepare numdah rugs and the animal not only fulfils meat and milk needs of the locals but is also traded to earn hard cash by selling it to butchers – a well looked-after animal can fetch as much as $1,000.
Broghil’s terrain is similar to adjacent region of Pamir, which is Wakhi for upland grazing ground and this rough and harsh region offers scant forage to its nomadic people due to lack of suitable vegetation cover.
The yak suits this environment very well. It’s on its own for most part of the year and even manages to dig out grass and forage buried in deep snow. The locals have to feed the animal in January and February though when the area is buried under several feet of snow.
Neglected no more
The yak population across Broghil is said to be about 900. The poor man’s flock may comprise 10 but those of rich goes into triple figures.
“Horses are very expensive and as they have to be fed and cared for throughout the year,” Amin Jan, a yak polo player from Lashkargaz village, said. He added that a local can easily spare a yak out of a pack of 10 animals for polo without causing drain on his resources.
Dr Inayatullah Faizi, author of ‘Wakhan Corridor’, noted that yak polo was the game of shepherds, who used to play it while tending their flocks as pastime. Faizi explained that yak is used to extreme climatic conditions of the region and can traverse difficult terrain, glaciers and can ford rivers with loads up to hundreds of kilogrammes easily.
The festival has also brought the neglected region to the attention of policy makers and development is slowly trickling into these remote valleys.
The sport has not only brought joy to the locals but also helped the government sit up and take notice.