You Will Never See Kashmir The Same Way
Kashmir has been looked upon by the world as not a state, but more like a political agenda, a case study and a vote bank all these years. Amidst all of this, what we really tend to overlook is the soul of the place- its serene beauty, its culture and the tradition that has been kept intact by the locals.
We never talk about this, but here, let us give you a little insight- alike every month, this month too, the editorial team of La Polo collectively settled onto the long list of themes that must be explored from the world of Polo. Among all the themes, one read- “Extreme Polo Destinations”. Well, let us be honest with you- we have heard and also covered a number of places from across the world that have enthralled us in terms of their “extreme” quotient and this time we were looking to do something different. In this entire process of finding the right story, one of the team members suggested- “Why don’t we talk about Polo at the second coldest inhabited place in the world?” And it was just right there, when the research work took a quick start. Connecting one dot to another, we ended up learning that it’s not just Drass, the second coldest inhabited place in the world that has a facility for Polo, but there’s also Kargil, Leh and Turtuk. Well, we knew about Drass and Kargil Polo festivals, but there we too were taken by awe when we started to dig deeper.
So here’s what happened next- we decided to cover the points that make Polo extreme at these places in the country that gifted the world this elite sport. But as we worked deeper, things started to get real. Once we connected with the locals from the places, it was then we knew that Polo for them is not just rules, or competition or after parties- for them, it is their tradition, a part of their life they love to the fullest, and a festivity that they are dying to keep alive. For them it is so much more than the sport of the kings- it is a way of living in every true sense.
Amir Khusro, a poet from the 13-14th century wasn’t a planck length wrong when he said and we quote:
“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.”
Which translates to; “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here..”
Kashmir is notorious to the world for its disputes and what looks like a never ending unrest, but amongst all of this, as also pointed out by the locals, what we tend to overlook is the serene beauty, the culture and the life of the locals. While our La Polo team was in search for the answers about the “extreme” factor of Polo at such high altitude, we connected with a number of locals, and amongst those people it was Mohammad Amin, a polo player and a local from Drass who has been working to promote the sport along with the officials and associations.
“It is really the locals- the normal people- no royal families, no one from the elite households, just normal middle class people who have kept the traditional Polo in Drass, Kargil, Leh and Turtuk alive”, Mohammad Amin said. He added; “The conditions here are extreme. For six months straight the places witness heavy snowfall and these locals still manage to take care of the horses, feed them and keep them healthy in these situations.” Well, Amin was not wrong when he said it was truly the locals who kept the sport alive. Imagine living at a place where the recorded temperature can go as low as -60 degree celsius and people still work hard to keep the health of the horses. And these are just normal, middle class and lower middle class people, who do not have a solid backbone supporting them. They do not, as we see otherwise, come from elite or royal families. They are not army members, but just mere localities, who are driven by the zeal to keep the tradition and culture of the sport alive. “Sometimes I am afraid to even think about how long the sport will survive here”, Amin said. More than the altitude and the temperature, in every true sense, it is the struggle and the drive to keep the sport alive that makes it extreme here in Ladakh.
Mohammad Amin is the third generation Polo player in his family, he says, “I have seen my father and my uncle play polo. They talk of the times when Polo was even more raw than it is today.” As Amin guides us through the Polo spirit in Ladakh he shares how the traditional form of polo is mixing up well with the modernization that international polo has come up with. To understand it better, let’s elaborate on the aspects of traditional polo.
THE RAWNESS OF THE SPORT OF THE KINGS
Let’s fathom on knowing the traditional form of polo at its best. Now, it is particularly known to everyone that Polo is believed to have originated in the north-eastern region of India in a state called Manipur. It was a local sport played by the localities from where it was observed by the British Army and that’s how the sport today is a worldwide thrill. Polo travelled the world to be altered, measured, binded with rules and a set of norms. The traditional sport met modernization on its way through the world.
But the traditional form of Polo, which is still intact in some parts of the world, has a lot more rawness to it. Here’s how Amin had to explain it for us, he said; “In international polo, people are not allowed to stand near the ground, but, very much contrary to it, people here walk through the ground while a polo match is in action without a blink of an eye.” While this sounded really risky to us, he explained, “This is not a stunt, but a mere mirror image of how much the people are involved with the animal and the game that they have built a sense of their moves in proportion to the move of the horse. This is a reflection of the bond between the people, the horses and the game more than anything else.” To make it even more clear he said; “How is it that in cities, the city people can easily cross the road, but crossing the same road with heavy traffic and rushing vehicles will be a whole task for a person from a small village.” He further added; “Here, on the polo field, we are those city people and the horses are the rushing cars. We know the moves and we can anticipate it well.”
60 MINUTES WITH A PONY
For us, it was still speculative, for we have witnessed games that swear by rules, penalties, umpires and the decision of the referee, and to hear all of this was such a novel boost in our mind. But all of it did not stop here, Amin kept breaking the rule book for us that we have prayed like a religion. And the next big thing that he took us on by was the stamina of the horses. “For a game of 55 minutes, we mostly use just one horse,” Amin said casually while our jaws dropped. Let’s make it easier for you to understand why it was a startling for us.
As per the rules of international polo, a single game of polo usually has 4-6 chukkers and each chukker is timed for 7 minutes. Every chukker is further divided into two halves with a break of as small as 60 seconds which is for the players to quickly go back to their camp area and change their ponies. This basically means that a polo player, on an average, changes his ponies for 8 times in a game of 4 chukkers. Contrary to this, the traditional form of Polo in Ladakh does not follow this rule. Infact, for a game which lasts upto 60 minutes, the polo player uses the same pony throughout.
Amin explains, “The breed of polo pony that we use here in Ladakh is a local breed- Zaniskari. The other breeds won’t last given the climate of Ladakh. It is only this breed that can survive the extreme conditions of this place.” He further added, “It is the game that lasts for 60 minutes, but these ponies actually have the ability to play for 3-4 hours straight without any break. This gives an insight on the stamina that this animal has.”
The Zaniskari or Zanskari breed is mostly found in the northern region of India, mostly in Jammu and Kashmir. These ponies are small in size in comparison to the other breeds like Thoroughbreds or Argentine polo ponies. Due to their small size, they are really compact and therefore great for a sport like Polo.
READ MORE: Nonpareil Polo Ponies | La Polo
THE ABSENCE OF UMPIRES
By now, we were sure that the people of Ladakh were going to bring so much more surprises for us and why would they not. These were people who had lived for a century and had so much to impart in terms of knowledge and change that the sport has witnessed over the decades of their lifespan.
We digested somehow the walking between the field and the stamina of the horses, but what came next was an unforeseen information for us. An international game of polo has three active participants in the game apart from the eight players- they are two on-field umpires and a referee who sits off-the field and is more like a third man. But, traditional polo has a different perspective altogether.
Amin shared with us that the traditional form of Polo originally never had an umpire or a referee. It just has players enjoying the game. But slowly, when competition sweeped it, it was decided by the committees of Polo that the game must be guided by a referee who would sit off-the field and would raise objections to any foul moves or penalties. This was later altered again. Amin said, “The traditional form of Polo is taking up some parts from the modern form of Polo. There is no harm in adapting rules which are good for the game.” It was from the modern form of polo that the traditional polo now has a single umpire inside the field who guides the match to raise objection against any foul movements.
But why was the change necessary in the first place? Amin suggested that a referee was always an essential part of the game when the sport developed into a competitive spirit, but it was observed by the committees and also the players that it is vital to have someone, inside the ground, in the play, rather than someone observing the same from a distance. “You can not speculate the exact moves of the game until and unless you are not in it on your own”, Amin said. That’s how a few changes started to sweep in the traditional form.
READ MORE : ENSURING FAIR PLAY | La Polo
SIX AND NOT FOUR, TWO AND NOT MORE
Now that we are into the traditional form of Polo at large and know a number of electrifying facts, here’s another one for you, or shall we say, we have got two. The traditional form of Polo that is played in Ladakh does not have four players comprising a team like international polo, but in fact, the team is a whole of six active players.
The international form of polo has always had four players, who play as per their positions and in a given pattern. The positioning of these four players is taken very seriously in the sport to mark the opponent as well as helping the team to lead towards the goal. While all of this is what the rest of the world goes by, traditional form as we mentioned, makes a team of six players.
Amin laughingly said, “Now, a lot of people wonder that here in Ladakh and mostly in Kashmir, it is just the army people who live. And believing in this, they end up thinking that the polo players are also just the army officials. But that’s not the truth.” He further added, “Through your platform, I would want people to know that the polo players here in Ladakh are middle-aged men and young boys that live in random streets and houses. These are people who are civilians of this country, who root and cheer for the sport for they want to keep it alive more than anyone else.”
Polo players here in Ladakh do not get proper training or attend a course to become a player. It is something that they adapt by watching. Amin said, “For kids who do not leave Ladakh and choose to stay here for the rest of their lives, they all have a hand in Polo. They all can play the sport, because it is something which is a local sport for us. Horse riding and playing polo are routine to us.”
While we were still finding answers to our questions, we felt, there’s utmost beauty in how, a sport that is otherwise believed to be so expensive and elite and page three at most of the places in the world, is a word of every household in here. The love they have for the sport, the struggle they are going through, and the zeal to keep the sport alive is so unconditional that speaks nothing but of devotion for Polo.
To break the rule book further for us, Amin informed us that the traditional form of polo does not have chukkers. Then what do they have? Here’s what he had to say, “So, the international rules of Polo say that each match will have 4-6 chukkers depending on the goal of the tournament. But there’s no rule like this in traditional polo. In fact, the traditional polo has two rounds of 20 minutes each. After the first 20 minutes, the players take a quick rest of 15 minutes, while the ponies are taken for a quick warm up session. The break is followed by another play of 20 minutes.” That’s how it is played at the high altitude in Ladakh.
While we were still in conversation, Amin broke it to us that, “Polo is a lot more different here than it is when it's played as per the international set of rules.” He added; “Usually, a polo match starts with the centre line and after every goal, the umpire brings the ball back to the centre line to indicate the beginning of the play. But that’s not what happens in traditional polo.” He said that in the traditional form of polo, soon after the goal, the ball is taken to the outer line and the goal side is changed.
GEARING IT UP
And as if all the information above was not moving enough, we landed on how gearing was not much of a culture here in Ladakh.
For spectators who have witnessed the game of Polo, it can not be unnoticed that safety is the top priority when it comes to international form of Polo. The players and the umpires are all geared and padded with knee-pads, proper boots, gloves, and helmets. Even the ponies are saddled, tamed and reined, their tails secured and legs wrapped with bandages for utmost protection.
But it has been observed in the past that the traditional polo do not always follow such rules, in fact at many days till date, helmets are not mandatory. When we asked about this, Amin said; “Well, as I said earlier, we have taken a few things from modern form, since they must be adapted for the good. One of the adaptations is the safety measure.”
In conversation with La Polo he said that there existed no such rules of helmets, boots and pads for the players. These rules have been lately introduced into the game for the safety of the players as well as the ponies. In the current scenario, it is mandatory for the players to gear up before entering the game. Although, the same has not been applied for the ponies- their tails are not secured in braids, but a light saddle is surely used for play with proper reins.
Amin said, “The actual traditional form of Polo just had a polo pony, a polo player and the player with his stick. And that’s it. No other equipment whatsoever.”
WHERE WILL THE FUTURE TAKE US?
While all of this sounds real fun and raw, there were small hints in the conversation that suggested the downfall of polo in this extreme.
Amin, when asked about the same said, “It is really hard for a common man to take care of the horses, do his daily job, contribute to the game and still fight to keep it alive at a level that the world knows about it. All of this gets difficult when there is no backbone that stands for support.”
With a sense of relief he further added, “But it feels like things might change in a positive manner. With Animal Husbandry, Ladakh Scout, Polo Association of Turtuk, Polo association of Kargil, Tourism Department of Kargil, and Chief Executive Councilor of Ladakh coming in altogether to promote the festival, it feels the fate might change.”
Nevertheless, having said that, the importance of building a polo school and promoting polo for the younger generation still remains one of the bigger objectives. For, it is the locals who can keep it alive and the younger generation needs to be a part of it throughout.