Extreme Polo

There are no holds barred at the annual grudge match in northwest Pakistan’s “land of mirth and murder”

At an altitude of 12,300 feet, the Shandur Pass is usually populated by grazing yaks. But once a year it turns into the world's highest polo ground. When teams from Chitral and Gilgit face off—as they have since 1933—tribesmen gather for the mayhem. (Paul Nevin)
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So I have time to kill. First on my list of things I want to know more about is the Kalash, one of the peoples who claim descent from some of the 70,000 troops Alexander led through Chitral on his way to India in 323 b.c.

In the 1890s, some 50,000 Kalash were spread across the frontier in a secluded land called Kafiristan (the name comes from kaffir, the Urdu and Arabic word for "unbeliever"). Westerners may remember it as the setting for Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, which was made into a 1975 movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. In 1893, the Afghani sultan Abdur Rahman invaded the land and renamed it Nuristan, or "Land of the Enlightened." He offered the Kalash a choice—forsake their many gods and convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most converted and assimilated into Muslim villages. But not all.

"There are just 3,000 left, the only pagans in a sea of Muslims from Turkey to Kashmir," says Siraj, who adds that his ancestors include a holy man who married a Kalash princess six centuries ago. The drive to the secluded valleys where the Kalash live will take just a few bone-rattling hours.

On the way out of Chitral we pass the polo grounds, a stretch of lush grass hemmed in by stone walls. Siraj tells me that Sikander—whose name is an adaptation of "Alexander"—practices here most days with his team year-round. "When the Duke of Edinburgh was here a few years ago, he asked my brother what he did for a living, and Sikander replied, ‘I play polo.' The Duke thought my brother had misunderstood the question and asked again. ‘I play polo,' Sikander answered once more."

An hour out of Chitral we cross a suspension bridge over a surging river and ascend a mountain track more suited to goats. I try not to look down as our jeep inches up steep gorges strewn with boulders.

The Kalash village of Bumboret is almost hidden in a cleave cut by a glacial river between two steep mountains lined with dense cedar stands. Eight years ago, there were few Muslims living here, but Siraj says that Saudi-funded Pakistani Muslim missionaries have been moving in. We drive for more than half an hour through Muslim villages before we reach the first Kalash settlement.

One of the most visible distinctions between the two peoples is that Kalash women go unveiled. Their clothing, worn from infancy to old age, is a homespun black robe and headdress that falls down the back like a horse's mane and is festooned with cowrie shells, beads and bells. Women and young girls sport facial tattoos of circles and starbursts.

And in contrast to most Pakistanis, who tend to be swarthy, most Kalash men and women have pale skin; many are blond and some are redheaded. They have aquiline noses and blue or gray eyes, the women outlining them with black powder from the ground-up horns of goats. "Wherever Alexander passed, he left soldiers to marry local women and establish outposts of his empire," Siraj tells me.

That contention, oft repeated in these parts, has recently gotten scientific support. Pakistani geneticist Qasim Mehdi, working with researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has found that Kalash blood, unlike that of other Pakistani peoples, shares DNA markers with that of Germans and Italians. The finding tends to support descent from Alexander's troops, Mehdi said, because the general welcomed troops from other parts of Europe into his army.

As I get out of the jeep, I greet some villagers with "Ishpadta," or "Hello"—but most stare silently at me or turn away. Perhaps they feel that no good can come from contacts with the outside world.


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