Shandur's Diminishing Glory - And How To Restore It

Shandur's Diminishing Glory - And How To Restore It
The indomitable spirit of human athleticism, since times immemorial, has kindled a kaleidoscope of sporting spectacles, ceaselessly enthralling successive generations with an inexhaustible wellspring of entertainment and inspiration. Globally, each region/country embraces its own unique sporting passions and inspirations, drawing dedicated fans into their respective folds. Yet, among these illustrious sporting pursuits, there exists one that reigns supreme — a true embodiment of regality and prowess: polo, which has been aptly hailed as the "King of Games and Game of Kings.”

Without a doubt, the meticulously regulated polo played across the globe merits its moniker as the King of Games. However, it is in the untamed world of freestyle polo, flourishing amidst the breathtaking landscapes of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, that the true essence of the King of Games manifests itself.

Unfettered by rigid rules and on-field umpires, freestyle polo emerges as an unparalleled spectacle of unfathomable courage, boundless adventurism and unparalleled sportsmanship.

Historically, polo, akin to cricket for the mainlanders in Pakistan, has garnered immense adoration, ardent following and unwavering enthusiasm from both GBians and Chitralis.

Freestyle polo's origins lie deeply embedded within the fabric of the Northern Areas and largely it was the British in the 19th century who played a pivotal role in regionalising and catapulting its popularity to new heights. They were the ones who introduced polo in Shandur—the highest polo ground in the world— in the year 1936.

In the days of yore, polo at Shandur was a nocturnal affair at "mas junali" – a Khowar language word denoting the moonlit playground where this majestic game would unfold. As Shandur, at an altitude of 12,500 sq km from the sea level, serves as a pass between Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it naturally evolved that teams from both sides of the pass would vie for sporting supremacy.

Initially, it was rival teams from adjacent valleys that clashed in friendly competition. However, over time, the allure of Shandur beckoned more participants, transforming the event into a grand three-day national extravaganza, occurring annually from the 7th to the 9th of July.
Extensive tracts of natural beauty, once freely accessible, have been roped off with stark wires and guarded by police, catering exclusively to a privileged few—individuals who paradoxically trumpet their dedication to public service while shamelessly exploiting taxpayer resources

This year, the stage is set for a thrilling and captivating display as six teams, representing both KP and GB, grace the naturally manicured ground with their formidable skills.

Nestled amidst vast stretches of green plains, cradled by snowcapped towering mountains, and caressed by the serenity of a vastly sprawling lake, this unique landscape paints a portrait that enchants everyone beyond measure. Yet, it is imperative to confront the disquieting undercurrents that mar this natural paradise, to unveil the poignant truths that lie beneath the surface and seldom talked about.

In stark contrast to the idyllic image painted above, Shandur, regrettably, has lately become a fully barricaded and heavily militarised arena with a receptacle for unsightly waste.

Since its inception, the local civil administration would pull off this three-day event, mindful of Shandur's intrinsic essence as an open, unbridled haven and cherished natural landscape. However, recent years have witnessed an alarming shift, as Shandur has succumbed to the oppressive grasp of fortified militarisation.

Narrowed pathways, stifled by suffocating barbed wire entanglements and undue policing now dominate this once-unfettered sport arena. Extensive tracts of natural beauty, once freely accessible, have been roped off with stark wires and guarded by police, catering exclusively to a privileged few—individuals who paradoxically trumpet their dedication to public service while shamelessly exploiting taxpayer resources. The path hemmed in by these predetermined constraints, chokingly filled with the pungent haze of dust, transforms Shandur into a perilous, suffocating labyrinth.

Last year, reflecting upon these highly distressing developments, a poignant conversation with an elderly sports enthusiast—well into his octogenarian years—yielded a profound revelation. Upon asking his take on the state of affairs at Shandur, with a heavy heart and a sigh of anguish, he lamented, "I long for the days when Shandur used to be Shandur, but now, it has metamorphosed into Janoty xaar (a poison that taints the soul). Had I known of its descent into this hellish state, I would have never ventured forth. I regret setting foot in Shandur."

Intrigued by his words, I probed further, seeking a solution to restore Shandur to its former glory. Without hesitation, he responded, "Remove these armed sentinels and allow people to breathe in the open air, in the loving embrace of true nature."

Let it be known that my intention is not to dissuade anyone from partaking in the splendorous festivities that Shandur offers. Rather, it is a plea—shared by many alike—to witness the renaissance of Shandur in its purest form. We yearn for an arena where freestyle polo flourishes, enjoyed by spectators who move freely, unhindered by the suffocating grip of excessive security measures.

It is imperative to note that Shandur has consistently upheld a legacy of peace and harmony, drawing together peace-loving sports enthusiasts from both sides of the pass and beyond along with the heads of states as chief guests over the years. There exists no shadow of doubt concerning the security and peace at this venue.

The other darker side that needs our immediate attention is the environmental concerns that have arisen over time. Mountains of filth and garbage left behind after the festival have triggered serious health hazards, particularly for the grazing and aquatic fauna of Shandur. Disturbingly, reports from last year have emerged of scores of livestock succumbing to illness and death after ingesting the polluted remnants. The pristine landscapes, once an epitome of purity, now bear the scars of human incivility.

Moreover, it is also a matter of interest to note that as the Shandur festival draws near, a contentious debate ensues on both sides of the pass, as politically-motivated provocateurs attempt to sow discord and foment dissent over its possession.

These divisive forces need scrutiny, questioning whether their machinations are orchestrated by entities external to our shared domain. Are they merely marionettes, manipulated by hidden puppeteers seeking to exploit our divisions for personal gain? It calls for earnest introspection from sane voices on both sides of the pass.

It is crucial to recognise that the issue of Shandur is more of an inter-village issue than an inter-provincial one, concerning only the people of Upper Chitral and Upper Ghizer. Bound by ancient familial ties, with marriages between the two sides spanning generations, Shandur has forever represented a co-possession, a cherished heritage that must endure.

To this end, the wisdom of our elders and the resolve of our villagers must unite, not only to rebuff the meddlesome forces but also to gracefully uphold the treasured legacy of our forefathers. There is a need for consensus, a mechanism that ensures the long-standing status of Shandur intact, casting aside the shadows of self-interest and embracing the splendor of this unparalleled natural gift bestowed upon us by the divine.

In unity, let us pledge to restore Shandur to its former glory, discrediting those who manipulate it for their nefarious ends. May we reclaim its untamed majesty and its resplendent wonder, as nature and polo coalesce to bring joy and harmony to all who cherish the beauty of this extraordinary wonderland.

Sher Ilyas is a freelance writer based in Islamabad. He can e reached on 'X' (formerly Twitter): @IlyasGBian