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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An hour's drive deeper into the mountains we come to the village of Rumbur, where I check in with another friend from my previous visit, the Kalash leader Saifulla Jan. His eyes dim when I express surprise at seeing so many Muslims at Bumboret. "I've been fighting in the courts to get back our land from the Muslims for 13 years now, but the case still goes on," he says. Why does it take so long? He shrugs. "Pakistani justice moves slowly. I go to court once a month, but somehow the matter never gets resolved."

Despite Muslim incursions, Saifulla says, the Kalash are defiantly keeping their culture intact through a simple sanction: "If any Kalash converts to Islam, they can't live among us anymore. We keep our identity strong."

The Kalash will need their strength. The region's Muslim tribes have a centuries-long history of enthusiasm for feuding—especially the Ulmulk royal family, entrenched in their capital back at Chitral.

"Many of the mehtars [kings] of Chitral have waded to their thrones through streams of blood," the British historian C. Collin Davies wrote in 1932 in The Northwest Frontier. The book is in the Ulmulk family collection in Chitral, along with several others containing equally intriguing descriptions of the royals. When I wonder aloud whether the Gilgit polo team stands a chance against the descendants of such cutthroats, Siraj smiles with princely modesty.

"Whenever a king died or was murdered, his sons began killing each other until one gained the throne," he elaborates. "Once there, he was never secure, because the surviving brothers usually plotted to kill him and seize the throne."

He takes me to a fort beside the swirling Chitral River. The fort's 25-foot walls are made from mud reinforced with timber and rocks, and one of them has been blackened by fire—a reminder, Siraj says, of extensive royal bloodletting in the 1890s.

"We've given up fighting with guns and swords, and now do battle on the polo field," he says. The change has done wonders for Ulmulk longevity, at least judging from Prince Khushwaqt Ulmulk. The prince, who happens to be Siraj and Sikander's father, is 94.

He lives in a modest bungalow beside a fort in Mastuj, on the Chitral side of the Shandur Pass. The following day I head out with a guide on a four-hour trip over a precipitous dirt road shadowed by 20,000-foot peaks to visit him.

Following Chitrali tradition, Khushwaqt was appointed governor of Mastuj on the day he was born. A month later, his father sent him there to be raised by a noble family. "I grew up knowing the people and languages of the place I'd one day rule," the lively old man tells me. "When I was 4, my father married me to a 6-year-old noble girl. When I met my father again, at age 9, instead of greeting me, he pressed a lighted cigarette against my face. He was testing my toughness."

Khushwaqt went on to become an army colonel under British rule, charged with subduing rebellious Pathan tribesmen in the Northwest Frontier Province. He says he loved the rough and tumble. Even now, he invests his memories of royal infighting with nostalgia. "When the British put an end to it, they spoiled the fun," he says.


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