Extreme Polo

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

the Shandur Pass turns into the worlds highest polo grounds
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

By midmorning's light, a military helicopter descends on the Shandur Pass, a 12,300-foot-high valley hemmed in by mountains whose jagged peaks soar another 8,000 feet above us. This part of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province is usually inhabited only by hardy shepherds and their grazing yaks, but today more than 15,000 assorted tribesmen are on hand as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf emerges from the chopper, a pistol on his hip.

Musharraf, who has survived several assassination attempts, seems to be taking no chances in a province roamed by Muslim extremists. But still, he has come: after all, it's the annual mountain polo match between Chitral and Gilgit, rival towns on either side of the Shandur Pass.

Persians brought the game here a thousand years ago, and it has been favored by prince and peasant ever since. But as played at Shandur, the world's highest polo ground, the game has few rules and no referee. Players and horses go at one another with the abandon that once led a British political agent to label Chitral "the land of mirth and murder."

This valley guards an important chain of passes on the ancient Silk Road linking Western Asia with China. In the 19th century, the area loomed large in the Great Game, the spy-versus-spy shadow play between the Russian and British empires. The exercise of local rule, however, remained with the Ulmulk royal family, whose reign extended from 1571 to 1969, when Chitral was incorporated into Pakistan. It was in reference to the Ulmulks that the British political agent, Surgeon Major George Robertson, wrote in 1895: "Their excesses and revengeful murders went hand in hand with pleasant manners and a pleasing lightheartedness."

Now, as Musharraf takes his place in the stands, the two teams begin parading around the Shandur ground, their stocky mounts tossing their manes and flaring their nostrils. The team from Gilgit, a garrison town, comprises tough-eyed Pakistani soldiers and police officers, and its star player is an army sergeant named Arastu but called Shaheen, or "the Hawk." The Chitral team is led by Prince Sikander, a scion of the Ulmulks—and the losing captain for the past two years. This is his day: to be shamed forever as a three-time loser or redeemed as champion of the mountains.

Chitral is isolated for several months each year by heavy snows, but in warmer weather a propjet can spear through a gap in the high, barren mountains of the Hindu Kush. I first visited the town in the summer of 1998, when I met another Ulmulk son, Sikander's brother Prince Siraj. He owns a local boutique hotel, whose celebrity guests he is not known to fawn over. (He once asked Robert De Niro what he did for a living.) It was Siraj who first told me about the grudge polo match held each July, and it was at his invitation that I returned for last summer's tilt.

As it happened, it was during my first visit that President Clinton ordered the bombing of Osama bin Laden's suspected headquarters in a cave just across the border in Afghanistan. In response, the mullahs in Chitral called for the killing of all foreigners in town after Friday prayers. And so a mob of extremists screamed for our blood as they marched through the bazaar—but the paramilitary police herded me and the few other foreigners around into a hotel until we could be flown out to safety a few days later.

This time, as Siraj and I drive through the bazaar, a warren of hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from ancient flintlocks to assassin's daggers to juicy melons to pirated running shoes, little seems to have changed. As before, there are no women in sight, and most men are bearded and robed. But then I notice that not a single man wears the black robes, black turban and long beard of the Taliban. "Following 9/11, the government forced them back into Afghanistan," Siraj says. "We were glad to see them go."

The region's tribal warfare and religious strife reach back millennia. At the same time, the towering mountains and labyrinthine passes have isolated some peoples in time warps all their own. If you roam around, you can find tribes who claim descent from Alexander the Great's army, or meet a wizard who summons snow fairies from the mountains in a ritual that predates even the Macedonian conqueror's time.

The polo match is still a week away, but Siraj says the Chitral team is already in the mountains making for Shandur, usually six hours on bumpy roads by jeep. "Even though the men and their horses are used to high altitudes, the pass is so lofty that they need to acclimatize to its thin air," he says. Sikander and the team spend each night at a different village, playing practice games.

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.

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."

A bomb scare sends spectators of a polo match onto the field
Regulation time is over, the score is tied, the captains have chosen to play on—but then a bomb scare sends spectators rushing onto the field. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, the survivor of several assassination attempts, kept his seat for the few minutes it took to restore order and resume play. Paul Nevin

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.

When our talk turns to polo, he tells me that a win in this year's match is vital for his son's pride and reputation. "If Sikander loses again this year," he says, "the villagers all the way to Chitral will pelt him with tomatoes and curses as he and the team bring home their horses."

He pauses, then adds with a wry smile: "That's better than putting him to the sword, like they might have done in years past."

We sip tea beneath a steep slope where ibex gambol, and our talk turns to tactics. "The Gilgit team uses black magic to win," Khushwaqt says. "But we spurn such evil."

I may soon see what he's talking about—my next destination is a region north of Gilgit, called Hunza, which is home of the wizard who is said to summon the snow fairies.

Hunza lies in a valley close to the Chinese border, amid the savage beauty of the Karakoram Mountains. Nearby, the peak called Rakaposhi towers at 25,707 feet, and Ultar Mountain protects a once-secret pass to Central Asia. Hunza was largely cut off from the world until a road was hacked into the mountains in 1978, linking it with western China.

Today, the valley has a population of about 50,000, and the slopes are thick with apple, peach and apricot orchards. Mud hut villages front terraced fields of wheat, barley and potato dug out of the dizzying rock slopes. Friendly-looking people throng the bazaars lining the road. Unlike the lowland Pakistanis, the Hunzakuts are rosy-cheeked and fair-skinned, with blue, green or gray eyes. Their hair ranges from corn yellow to raven black. Here, too, the women wear no veils with their colorful robes and scarves. And here, too, Mehdi, the Pakistani geneticist, has found genetic links to Alexander's army.

On my 1998 visit to the region, Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Hunza's pale-skinned king, greeted me at the steps of the 700-year-old Baltar Fort, a granite stronghold in the region's capital, Karimabad. His black velvet robe was embroidered with gold thread, and he wore leather slippers with upturned toes. Precious jewels studded his headband, from which a feather fluttered in the breeze. At 48, the king still had a warrior's face, and his piercing blue eyes gripped mine.

"My family has ruled Hunza for 900 years," he said as we climbed the fort's stone steps to the rooftop courtyard to gaze over the verdant valley. One of his royal predecessors reportedly bragged of his descent from a union between Alexander and one of the snow fairies inhabiting the alpine meadows and icy peaks. Ghazanfar pointed to Rakaposhi and said, "Our wizard can call down the snow fairies to dance with him."

The wizard of Hunza is Mashraf Khan, 40, a stocky, dark-hued man with wild eyes. He was appointed to the job when he was 8 years old by Ghazanfar's father. When I meet him over a pot of tea, Mashraf tells me that when he dances with the snow fairies, they help him see the future. "Two hundred years ago, a wizard here prophesied that metal horses carrying men would one day fly through the sky, and so it happened," he says. Now he will carry out a ritual that Alexander himself might have seen.

On a field facing Rakaposhi, three musicians sit cross-legged on the grass playing drums and flutes. The wizard, clad in pantaloons and a cream woolen coat, bends over a fire of sacred juniper leaves, inhales deeply and leaps into the air. Then he looks skyward and smiles beatifically. "He sees the snow fairies coming," my guide explains.

As the music quickens, Mashraf charges around the clearing, whirling, face beaming. Suddenly, he twitches and jerks as if an invisible person has him on a string. "He's dancing with the snow fairy queen," the guide whispers.

Mashraf bends low over the musicians and begins to sing in a thin voice, echoing a prophecy related to him by the snow fairy queen. Then he rises, spins furiously, then abruptly falls down and lies as still as death on his back, his arms outstretched.

After he has "recovered," Mashraf tells me that the snow fairy queen and several subordinate fairies came to dance with him. "They resemble humans, but their mouths are wider and their legs are much longer than ours, with the feet facing backward," he says matter-of-factly. "They have wings to fly through the air, and are clad in green robes."

Of course I am eager to know what the snow fairy queen prophesied, but when I hear his answer, I am sorry I asked: "A girl will die a month from now, falling into the river to the north," he says.

As the day of the polo match draws near, the slopes of the Shandur Pass have become thick with tribesmen who traveled from across the region. Tents have spread across the slopes like desert daisies after a rain, and charred mutton kebabs scent the air. The two rival teams have pitched their tents close by each other, separated only by a rocky knoll. Their battle flags flap furiously in the wind while their flint-eyed horses, tethered to poles, paw the ground.

In a tent amid the Chitral cluster, Prince Sikander sips tea with visitors. At 49, he resembles a middle-aged Freddie Mercury from the band Queen. He seems self-assured, but his eyes look wary. "Polo started about 2,500 years ago as a Persian cavalry training exercise, and there were up to 100 players on each side," he tells me. "It was like a battle, not a sport. Our form of polo is closest to the original, although we have just six players on a team."

The grudge match was established in 1933 by Col. Evelyn Hey Cobb, a polo-loving British political agent, in an effort to unify the region. Today marks the beginning of a three-day tournament, whose preliminary matches pit lesser teams from each side of the pass against each other. In the first game, a team from the Chitral side is easily beaten. That night, as a numbing wind sweeps down from the mountains, the Chitralis throw off their gloom from the loss with traditional dancing, twirling to wailing flutes and thudding drums. But in keeping with local Muslim custom, women are utterly absent from the revelry, remaining in the tents that dot the slopes.

The next day, the play is faster and more furious. As one player—a schoolteacher by day—charges an opponent to get the ball, his horse trips and cartwheels across the field, snapping its neck. The rider walks away with scratches and bruises, but the horse has to be euthanized by a veterinarian. After play resumes, the team from the Chitral side of the pass vanquishes the team from the Gilgit side. That leaves the sides tied with one victory each, but the preliminaries are incidental: only the final game really counts.

That night I walk over to the Gilgit tents. Their star, the Hawk, is tall and spare as a hunting knife. "I've been playing polo at Shandur for 20 years," he tells me in Urdu, which is translated by one of his teammates as acolytes scurry to serve us tea and biscuits. He introduces me to Mohammad Fakir, a shaman, who tells me he has cast a spell to ensure Gilgit's third straight victory in the big game. "Sikander and his team don't stand a chance," the Hawk boasts.

On the day of the final match, the stands are packed, with Chitral fans on one side and Gilgit fans on the other. A few hundred women, faces veiled, are clustered in a separate stand at the field's far end. Musharraf has taken a seat on the Chitral side, which offered a grandstand.

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.

As Sikander hurtles down the field and performs a final thampuk, the ground shakes from the Chitralis' cheering and stomping. Pakistani soldiers armed with assault rifles ring the field as President Musharraf strides onto the ground. Spurred on by flutes and drums, he lifts his arms in the air and performs a traditional Chitrali victory dance with Sikander and his team.

Amid the tumult, Prince Khushwaqt approaches the field with the brisk enthusiasm of a much younger man, but a soldier bars his way. In true Ulmulk style, the nonagenarian thrusts the soldier's gun aside with his walking stick and embraces his victorious son.

Paul Raffaele, a frequent contributor, visited the Korowai of Indonesian New Guinea for the September issue. Sydney-based photographer Paul Nevin is making his Smithsonian debut.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.