The Shandur Polo Festival is one of most famous and unique festivals of Pakistan. Held from 7 to 9 July at Shandur Polo Ground, this brief yet astonishingly grand event attracts thousands of local and international tourists each year. The Festival was featured in the famous BBC television series ‘Himalaya with Micheal Palin’. Sporting spectacular natural beauty, exhilarating folk music and local dance, the festival is mainly popular for the free-style polo tournament played among the best of the best teams of Chitral and Gilgit.
The Shandur Polo Ground is situated on the Shandur Pass which is about 9 hours’ drive from Chitral and about 10 hours’ drive from main city Gilgit. The polo ground itself lies at a staggering altitude of 3,750 meters above sea level and is considered as one of the highest polo grounds in the world. It is generally called ‘Roof of the World’.
The origin of polo in Shandur is attributed to 16th Century Balti Ruler of Skardu Ali Sher Khan Anchan who also devised the rules of the game (to-date the rules are more or less same). The present-day ground was constructed in 1935 by the orders of Evelyn Hey Cobb, a British political agent to Northern Areas and a polo enthusiast. Cobb was fond of playing polo in moonlight therefore the ground was named ‘Mas Junali’ which in Chitrali language means ‘moon polo ground’. From 1936 onwards, annual polo tournaments were held under the patronage of British. Currently, the event is jointly organized by Tourism Corporation of NWFP and Ministry of Tourism Gilgit-Baltistan.
The polo played at Shandur differs greatly from the standard polo. First and foremost, the ground is much smaller than a standard polo ground. While a standard polo ground has dimension of 275m x 145m, Shandur polo ground is just 200m long and 50m wide which makes the field fairly crowded by the 12 players (6 on each team). Secondly, unlike standard polo, polo played in Shandur is a free-style polo meaning there are no fouls in the game which makes the game fairly brutal. You can hit the player of the opposite team with your mallet if you think that’s going to help you anyways in the game (but this way you would lose a team member of yours wearing the same T-shirt number of the injured opponent if the injured player cannot resume the game). Lastly, in standard polo horses take rest for about 4 minutes after every 7 minute but in Shandur horses play a non-stop of 25 minutes following a 10 minutes break after which the game resumes for another 25 minutes which at an altitude of more than 3700 m (since air pressure is very low) is a big feat for the horses and the players alike.
Although polo is the primary spectacle at Shandur Polo Festival but the folk music, local dance and the surrounding natural beauty are no less of a majestic spectacle. Spirit-lifting drum beats with passionate dancers and equally passionate crowd cheering synchronously with the music on the lush green plains of Shandur surrounded by snow-topped mountains are no fantasy.
The festival has its problems too. There are no any proper accommodation facilities for tourists; camp villages are setup where tourists stay and local tradesmen sell goods of need and wants. Moreover, the terrains to reach there from both Gilgit and Chitral are as brutal as the game itself. Narrow rugged roads over the mountains, keeps one on a jeep just 2 inches away from death. The popularity and economic potential of the Shandur Polo Festival begs for the government to start up an initiative to eradicate these problems and make Shandur more accessible and feasible for tourists.
All in all, Shandur polo festival is a treasured heritage of Pakistan with a legendary style and history. Despite the risks, adventure tourist from around the world come to this event which says all about its uniqueness and value. Think what would happen if this legendary sporting event was made more accessible by constructing a road and some hotels were made for at least international tourists to stay. I see a great opportunity for Pakistani tourism industry here!