Indo-Pak Relations, Polo Can Ease Belligerency
The Persians may claim the birthing right but Chogan is known to the world today by the Tibetan word 'Polo', which simply means a ball. However, the accurate term for horse polo is rta-polo, which differentiates it from football (kangpolo) and handball (lakpolo). Dr. Michel Peissel in his book 'Tibet: The Secret Continent' credits the Tibetans for introducing polo to Central Asia, Gilgit and even Manipur. Although polo lost patronage in Tibet in the fourteenth century; but people of Chitral, Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh still play the sport with Tibet's free style, in which the scorer is allowed to handle the ball while galloping towards the opposite goal post to hit Draphok. Called the game of the kings and the king of the games; it is widely acclaimed as part of national identity in Gilgit-Baltistan and played by the royalty and the commoners alike.
Like modern day cricket, which has played a significant role in normalizing Indo-Pak relations; horse polo also played its due role in uniting various Karakoram-Himalayan nations and improving diplomatic relations between warring chiefs. In this context, one narrative from Pakistan controlled Gilgit-Baltistan brings our attention to a polo ground called Muztaghi Shagaran or the pologround of the ice peak, which was established by the ruler of Shigar on the fringes of the Shaksgam Valley. Today, China controls Shaksgam as well as Shimshal, Aghil and Raskam valleys; however they are still considered as part of Gilgit-Baltistan and therefore linked to the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.
Locals claim that the rulers of Shigar made regular trips to the valleys north of the Karakoram ridge and during one of those visits, the Mir of Yarkand, in modern day East Turkestan, travelled across the Shaksgam River to greet the Raja and subsequently joined him for the polo match. From that time on, the rulers of both states arranged annual polo tournaments at the Muztaghi Shagaran with much fanfare, mostly in autumn to mark the end of the harvest season. Through polo diplomacy, the rulers and people of Shigar and Yarkand not only contained political rivalry and established peaceful co-existence; but also enriched the civilization through exchange of knowledge, music and literature.
Today, Balti shagarans exist all over the region; in Ladakh, Astore, Ghizer, Gilgit and Chitral, and reflect on a common Himalayan heritage. For instance, the famous Shandur polo ground, where the polo teams of Chitral and Gilgit stage a fiery battle every year in July, was established by the Balti king, Ali Anchan Rmakpon, whose successors later ruled Chitral for several decades.
For the natives, polo is not just a recreational activity. It is at the core of their cultural heritage and runs deep in their blood and soul. They believe that polo can perform miracles to bring the Himalayan parts of India and Pakistan together. They dream of a day when the line of control will become irrelevant and the polo teams from Leh, Drass, Gilgit and Chorbat will clash in Skardo to mark the annual festivals of Losar and Mephang. The patronage at this scale will boost eco-tourism and potentially help sustain livelihoods of the aspiring polo players, who at the time being survive working as security guards, drivers and peons in government departments of Gilgit-Baltistan. It will be a win-win situation for those who desire to bring peace by connecting hearts and minds, and at the same time support sustainable trade and development in South Asia.
After several centuries, polo is now making a comeback in the Amdo region of Tibet. One person, Professor Tsongkha, is especially keen in the revival of this native sport. He calls polo as one of the most precious cultural legacies of Tibet. He emphasizes that free style polo is associated with Tibetan nomadic culture and fits perfectly with the character of the nation on horse. May be he has not realized it yet but if China, India and Pakistan agree on using polo as an effective diplomacy tool, then very soon the Tibetan polo players could be competing with their counterparts in different regions of former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir as well as in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.