The rain is a spoilsport. Literally.
This May, men thronged the polo stadium in Chitral city for days, dressed in their best for a tournament that had the commoner as excited as the aristocrat with princely lineage. Youth strutted around in feather-crested woolen caps, the pakol — the kind they made a shy Diana, that goddess with a pensive gaze, wear when she came visiting in 1991. As is often the case, flights to northern Pakistan had been cancelled the day of her visit due to inclement weather. The princess surprised everyone by turning up in a private plane.
Diana is long gone. And to life in northern Pakistan, polo is as much of a constant as the mountains. But this year has thrown up a surprise. The annual District Polo Tournament played in May has been rechristened “Mulki”, the local word for the British political agent who traditionally organised the game in Chitral, the princely state, under the Raj. Even though polo tournaments are annually held in the district, the original “Mulki Tournament” was discontinued after 1969 when Chitral, and the neighbouring Dir and Swat in the north, became part of Pakistan.
Every year in May, polo tournaments in the district have local teams competing to qualify for “Polo at the Peak” — the big game at Shandur in July, where teams from Chitral and the neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan battle for polo-primacy. For days now, the final game of the Mulki Tournament – on whose outcome hinged that qualification – has been cancelled as day after day, the sky darkens and the drizzle threatens to become a downpour. Crowds leave the stadium crestfallen.
Then comes Friday and the sun. Folks in streets and offices wrap up the day’s business early in anticipation of the game after prayers. Above the maples and the mountains, the blue sky is still piebald with cumulus clouds but the sun – with some help from favourable winds – seems determined to resist their billowing advance. The outlook for the final game is shiny!
At 2 pm in the afternoon, all roads lead to the district polo ground. It hums, this hive of people jostling for space on seats and stairs along the edge of the stadium. Across the ground, facing the club-seating for the police and district officials, and the Mehtar, the Prince of Chitral, are two stalls with the scoreboard between them. There sit the bands with trumpets and dhols — cheerleaders for the two teams playing today, the Chitral Police versus the Chitral Scouts form the Frontier Corps. Above the stalls flutter the flags – Pakistan, the Police and the Frontier Corps – with Tirchmir in the backdrop, in all its charcoal glory. At the far edge of the ground, players and their ponies stand in loose knots, bodies tense in anticipation of the imminent game, like ranks of soldiers quietly priming themselves for an assault.
And then with the strike of the mallets from players, the game gets underway. Amid a frenzy of galloping motion, the dusty air aquiver with the rumble of horse-hooves, the pitch turns into a battleground with players and ponies striving to outpace each other to get close to the ball. Not long into the game and the Chitral Scouts earn a drumroll. And soon another on scoring a second goal. The scoreboard for the police team stays bleakly blank. Arms strain to swing mallets, riders teeter to position their chargers to drive the ball from end to end in an equestrian frenzy of rearing and racing. Ponies sprint off the pitch, coming alarmingly close to the ground’s edge at times, narrowly missing to graze the spectators sitting there. The applause from the crowd surge and fall, as does the music from the two bands as they take rounds to cheer on their teams.
And then a collective “oooohhhh” from the crowd! Amidst the clamour of riders racing to reach the ball, a horse stumbles and fall, taking down the player even as he tries to hit the ball falling down. He gets us dusting himself, mounts the steed and is back in the game as if nothing happened.
Few rules govern the traditional Mulki game, a free-style polo. This year, around 50 local teams including those from villages in Chitral and other districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa entered the game. But only the government-sponsored teams – the Frontier Corps’ Chitral Scouts and the Chitral Police – made it to the final game. Much time, effort and money goes into training a team, which is probably the reason why these teams win year after year because they have resources.
By the time the game breaks after the first half, the Chitral Scouts have an edge with four goals. The police is still at zero. The FC band playing pipes and drums parade cheerfully past the review post in full regalia, the stiff crests of pakols worn by the band-members and their crisp uniform suggesting a military pride in their victory. As it leaves the ground, the police band comes in. Band members in white suits and green and red waistcoats prance with swords in hands and former players of the team join in the dance to buoy-up the team’s spirit.
In come the officers of the two teams on horsebacks, putting up a show of camaraderie by playing a friendly game against each other during the break. The Deputy Commissioner Irshad Sodhar, who has spearheaded the effort to revive traditional games and festivals in the district, makes his horse rear to boast his equestrian skills before the guests-stand and wins applause from the crowd.
Throughout the second half of the game, the Scouts maintain their winning streak. Even though the police has made it to the final after defeating several local teams, they are no match for the “arch-rivals”, the Chitral Scouts.
The riveting game, its dizzying pace on ground, is such that before you know it, it is over. Spectators spill over from the periphery into the ground. Dust clouds the stadium. Organizers from the Scouts and the police cordon the tight space where players and their supporters gather to perform the traditional dance, arms stretched skywards. The crowd thickens to have a better view, heaving and closing in on the ceremony at the end where local dignitaries are called upon to handover prizes.
As the ceremony approaches the end, clouds drift over the stadium and the sky darkens ever so slightly. There is a faint rumble of thunder beyond the mountains, drowned by the driving, jubilant beat of the drums. It seems in the face of enthusiasm from the players and the spectators, even forces of nature have retreated. That night it will rain but for now, the game is over and the Scouts triumphant with nine goals. And not one from the police!
“Did someone cast a hex over the police team?” a spectator wonders loudly as he leaves the stadium.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.