The thrilling Shandur Polo Festival takes place at the Shandur polo ground located at 3734 m high altitude on the sharing border between Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. The festival takes place every year from 7-9 July between the teams of Gilgit and Chitral attracting thousands of enthusiastic spectators to witness the game of kings and the king of games – the traditional freestyle Polo competition.
The version of Polo played here between the two arch-rivals is the form of Polo unique to this region and is never experienced elsewhere in the world. During the 3-day mega festival, domestic and international tourists, fervent supporters from Gilgit and Chitral, organizers, vendors, performers, Polo players, and their horses gather to create a makeshift village. There can be no battleground as spectacular as the lush ground of the Shandur Pass during the festival.
The Shandur Polo ground is ranked as the world’s highest Polo ground surrounded by mountain peaks and annexes a beautiful lake in the background which adds to the overall beauty and creates exciting activities for the tourists. The Polo ground is positioned in the midst of the pass measuring 200 m by 56 m (with 60 cm high stone wall running the length) as compared to conventional Polo field measuring 270 m by 150 m. Comparatively smaller in size, the field usually seems crowded for 12 players at a time. However, this limits the horses from long gallops on the high altitude.
With its history dating back to 6th century BC, Polo, an equestrian sport in Central Asia, used to be a training game for cavalry units of the king’s guards and other elite troops in Persia. Originally, Polo was played with as many as 100 players to a side, featuring a mini-battle. In the 6th century AD, it became the Persian national game and gradually spread to Arabia, Tibet, and China. In the year 910, the death of a favorite relative in a game in China incited Emperor Apao Chi ordered beheading of all players.
In South Asia, Polo was introduced in the 13th century by Muslim conquerors. Over the centuries, it adopted a more traditional version from that of a wild. The kind of Polo played today has six players to each side but still with no firm rules. That is why it is famously narrated “the rule is that there is no rule”. However, at Shandur, the only exception made was that six players to each side will play a one-hour thrilling match with only a 10-minute break because of the high altitude. The break is revived with a traditional dance performance. The maximum goal securer within the stipulated amount of time is declared the winning team.
The first Polo match at Shandur was played back in 1936. It originated dramatically when the British political agent of the area, Major Cobb, who was fond of playing Polo under the full moon, ordered Niat Qabool Hayat Kakakhel (a prominent figure, assistant to the governor, and politician from Ghizer district) to construct a Polo Ground in Shandur. The Polo Ground was given the name as “Mas Junali” derived from two Khuwar languages (the native language of people of Chitral and Ghizer) words meaning “Moony Polo Ground”. Cobb was so impressed by the efforts of Kakakhel and wanted to give a reward for his services. However, Kakakhel declined and demanded Cobb to stock the trout in the local streams instead. Cobb accepted this demand and ordered live trout from England which was later dropped into the River of Ghizer. His vision helped in the establishment of the Directorate of Fisheries and creation of job opportunities in the region. Today Gilgit-Baltistan is also the hub of Trout fishing.
The players and horses from both sides make it to Shandur weeks before the real battle takes place in order to get acclimatized for the final encounter. However, to be selected for the final teams, several preliminary matches are played both in Chitral and Gilgit. Best horses and players are chosen for the final games by the local judges during test matches on home grounds.
During the festival, no safety measures are followed in this wild game. Rarely wearing helmets, players dressed colorful, holding strapless mallets, chasing the ball wildly on their own rides even without bandages on at least to keep the horses from severe injuries. Winning the year-long awaited trophy is always worth a pride for both teams to take home which always makes the headlines of the major national news. Most supporters and tourists begin to make their presence at the venue immediately after the rival teams and their horses appear at the venue.
Both, Gilgit and Chitral, districts are accessible by air and by road from the capital city of Islamabad. From Gilgit, Shandur is about 211 kilometers to the west via Gilgit-Chitral road and from Chitral, about 168 kilometers to the northeast along the Shandur-Gilgit road. The journey from Gilgit to Shandur is decked with the scenic view of the valleys, lakes, fruit orchards, traditional houses, terraced fields, gushing river, and silent springs. Likewise, while driving via Chitral, one can observe the lush natural beauty of Mastuj and Surlasp valleys, the alluring culture of welcoming residents and traditional houses set amidst natural landscapes. The roads on both sides are suitable for 4WD vehicles and remain closed during winters.
The thrilling Polo contest at Shandur is coupled with some supplementary activities for the visitors to engage themselves and feast their eyes with the natural and cultural beauty of the region. The journey either through Chitral or via Gilgit is both adventurous and fascinating not only for the new visitors but also for the residents and for frequent travelers.
For adventure enthusiasts, there are opportunities to explore the surroundings of Shandur, fishing at the streams and at the lake, hiking, and much more. The event, besides the warm-up matches and the final battle, offers a fascinating insight into the lifestyle and cultural aspects of the people of Gilgit and Chitral. The nights are filled with musical performances and fireworks while paragliding and traditional dances of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan are performed in the day. The indigenous customs and natural beauty are a delight to behold for the visitors.
Travel enthusiasts can explore the parts of Chitral Valley and Gilgit Baltistan before and after the event. It is possible to organize a week-long tour program by adjusting days before and after the final Shandur polo contest. Prior planning can help make your tour a rewarding experience.
To all visitors, it is advisable to
- Make it to the venue at least a day before the final contest in order to enjoy all the offerings of the festival.
- Make accommodation, food, and transportation arrangements through a local tour operator if you are new to the destination.
- Carry comfortable (hiking) shoes, warm layers of clothing, cap, sunglasses, sunburn cream, umbrella/raincoat, water bottle, cell phone, and charger, etc.