Monday, September 17, 2007

Ladakhi Polo

The Ladakh version of polo is played by a set of rules dating back 500 years and more. And it was on the whim of a princess that the sport arrived here. Read on...
In environs as raw and rugged as nature can sculpt it was a rousing display. The innate power of man and mount moving in tandem to conquer. Crossing hurdles and gaining an edge, sometimes letting it all slip away. Fortunes stood on shifting sands. Cluttering hoofs raised billows of dust. The conditions were tough, the weather demanding. But the spirit didn’t flag. It egged on its companions: strength and skill.
When stakes were down the trio rose; charging ahead, pushing frontiers, raising the bar, holding nerve and eventually surmounting. The crowd, sitting with bated breath, broke into an ecstatic cheer. The win was hailed. Man and mount acknowledged. Strength, skill and spirit took a bow. It had been a display of superlative horsepower at its high-voltage best.
I was amidst an eager crowd watching a gripping exhibition of polo at Leh’s Polo Ground, 11,000 feet above sea level. The duel had been fought between the local teams of Ladakhi Scouts and Animal Husbandry. Always the strong favourites, Ladakhi Scouts (corps of the Indian Army) had annexed the day’s honours in this play for pride.
As a venue, the Polo Ground has more than a touch of wild drama, with mud mountains covering one flank, the Leh Palace rising high at the other end and a piercingly blue sky speckled with cottony white clouds doming it. Every summer, between July to September, this is the ‘shagaran’ or arena where polo teams from around Ladakh’s hamlets gather and play the sport…not according to contemporary norms but by a set of rules tabulated centuries back. Nearly 500 years ago.

Princess’ whim
The Polo Ground had a vibrant mix of people. Seated around me was a group of young monks, attentively tuned to the proceedings. “Do you know how polo arrived in Ladakh?” Lama Tsering asked me. I didn’t even try speculating. “I’ll enlighten you,” he said taking-off on a ‘Once upon a time…’ track and weaving a fascinating tale.
Polo wouldn’t have been played in the ‘shagarans’ had it not been for Gyal Khatun. She was a princess of Baltistan’s Maqpon dynasty, who grew up seeing the exploits of her father and brothers astride the steeds and heard their feats reverberating in the royal corridors. The Maqpons dynasty had been established here in the 12th century by Ibrahim Shah, who had migrated to Baltistan from Iran, the cradle of polo. Whenever Gyal got a chance she would espy men playing polo and secretly nurtured a dream of choosing a suitor who was a champion at the sport, considered the mark of man. The other princesses had been wooed that way and Gyal romantically hoped for something similar. Destiny though had other plans. The Maqpons had expansion on their mind and as a strategic alliance Gyal’s marriage proposal was sent to Ladakh’s Namgyal  dynasty. It was accepted and Gyal Khatun came across the Karakoram as the bride of King Jamyang Namgyal.
The young monarch had fallen prey to the bewitchingly-beautiful Gyal the moment he had set his eyes upon here. Any wish of hers was his command. During a stroll one evening, Gyal asked Jamyang why she never saw him playing polo. Jamyang confessed being least aware of the pursuit. Crestfallen, she walked away ruing her fate. Seeing his queen upset Jamyang summoned his courtiers and despatched them on mission polo. Legend says he secretly trained and months later impressed the queen with his mastery in the mounted sport. This was in the 16th century and ever since polo has been played across Ladakh.

Ladakhi edition
The game of polo has a long past. Born in the craggy mountaineous plains of Persia some thousand years ago, it travelled to China and Central Asia from where in its onward journey it halted at diverse places. In India, it is said, Mughal emperor Akbar lent it royal patronage. During the British rule it got further impetus with the cavalry regiments and princely states becoming major nurseries for the sport; the reason the Army and Rajasthan, besides Manipur and Ladakh where traditional formats are followed, are mainstays of the game in the country.
Modern polo comprises two teams of four members each. The game lasts 30 minutes and there are four rounds called chukkers of 7.5 minutes duration. After each chukker teams change sides and the stallions are substituted, which translates into a team requiring 16 horses per game. The stick and the ball are made of bamboo and the ball travels at a speed of 50-60 kmph. A handicap in polo is from -2 to + 10 and in contrast to golf, higher the handicap, better the player.
Ladakhi polo is feverishly quicker and more demanding. Till recently, there was no system of chukker and both teams played non-stop till nine goals were scored by either. This has been amended to two halves of 20 minutes each with a 10 minute break. As per tradition, the same set of horses is used throughout the match. After a goal, sides change and the scorer gets to take strike.
With the game being played at a fast pace and in conditions quite bucolic, chances are you can miss the goal. “Don’t fret,” said Lama Tsering when I couldn’t keep tab on the score. “Tune your ears to the sound of the daman (drum) and surna (oboe). No sport in Ladakh is complete without their high-pitched strains. As a goal is scored, musical frenzy increases and someone from the crowd gets up and does a victory jig.”
Lama Tsering’s narration had been gripping, almost as if I were hearing a movie script, with the polo game unfolding on the field providing complementing action and sound track! By the time the Lama wrapped up his raconteur role, Ladakh Scouts had romped to a win. The crowd began to disperse. They would be back the next day to cheer another session. I would fly home with pockets full of dust and a story to tell.

Quick facts:
Road: Leh–Srinagar (May to October) & Leh–Manali (July to September)
Polo season: Usually begins in July and ends in September with the Ladakh Festival

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