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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A toss of the ball starts the 60-minute game. I'm standing at a break in the low wall with several police officers, and time after time we have to jump to safety as the players rush straight at us in pursuit of a mis-hit ball. They crash their mounts into their opponents', seeking to unseat them, or lash out with their mallets, indiscriminately whacking horse and human. Up close, the grunting and thwacking are terrifying.

Sikander and a Gilgit player tear after a ball, both so low in the saddle that their heads threaten to hit the ground. The Gilgit horse noses ahead, and the rider takes a mighty swipe, sending the ball hurtling into the goal. Thousands of Gilgits cheer as an equal number of Chitralis groan.

Siraj's son-in-law, Shah Qubilal Alam of Lahore, captain of Pakistan's polo team, watches from the main grandstand. He shakes his head at the violence. "We've so many rules in mainstream polo, you can't do this, you can't do that, strictly controlled by a referee....In our polo, a chukker lasts just seven and a half minutes, and then you change horses. And that's at sea level. I can't see how the horses can go at it for half an hour at a time without a rest."

Sikander charges into melee after melee, sometimes hitting the ball, sometimes lashing an opponent. He scores the first goal for Chitral, and to the roar of his supporters charges straight down the field, holding the ball in the same hand as his mallet. With the many bands playing his special song, he tosses the ball into the air as he reaches midfield and with his mallet thumps it on the fly deep into enemy territory. This maneuver—the thampuk—signals the restart of play after the goal.

At halftime, the score is 3 all. While players and horses try to catch their breath, soldiers take to the playing field to perform traditional sword dances. After a half-hour, the game resumes, and the score seesaws through the second half—which finally ends with the teams tied at 5 goals each.

Siraj, who has been doing commentary over the PA system, announces that the teams may now elect to toss a coin to decide the winner or play on for ten minutes of overtime. "They have pushed themselves beyond their limits, and any more could be dangerous to man and horse," he intones.

But Shandur Pass mountain men don't toss coins. The horses' chests are heaving, and the game has slowed a bit, but the two captains insist that they play on. They get an unplanned breather when a bomb scare empties thousands of seats. But authorities soon determine that the "bomb" was a cigarette lighter detonated by overheating in the sun, and play resumes.

Overtime ends with the score tied at 7 all. Siraj, at the microphone, pleads for the players to toss a coin to end the match. But no one is surprised when both captains insist on playing ten minutes more.

The tension has become almost unbearable. Even with the score still tied, Siraj announces that "this is the greatest game ever" in the grudge match's 73-year history.

Play resumes, and Chitral scores a goal, and then another—Sikander's third of the game—to put the game beyond doubt. At last, it's over: Chitral 9, Gilgit 7.


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