Polo: Four legs, two heads, one heart

From tribal method of conflict resolution to a passport to high society, polo has been more of a culture than a game.

Momina Sibtain July 07, 2013
From a tribal method of conflict resolution to a passport to high society, polo has been more of a culture than a game.

Hot off his horse at the end of the polo match at Cirencester in 1985, Prince Charles planted on her lips what was probably the sweatiest kiss of Princess Diana’s public life. Her giggle was captured in an iconic photo that said it all about the sport: British cultural power, colonial elitism, high-society glamour, adrenaline-pumping competition.

As much as it seems that polo is a British invention, the sport’s history lies much more to the east. The general academic consensus is that polo’s origins lay in Persia. Poet Firdusi mentions the game at the end of the 10th century. And the word polo is believed to have come from the Tibetan word pulu for a ball made from the knot of willow wood, according to a 1914 article in The Lotus Magazine.

Hissam Hyder playing in the Royal Windsor Cup in 2013. PHOTO: FILE

The game’s arrival in the Indian subcontinent is unclear; some people say it came via Kashmir and others Afghanistan. It was played in Gilgit between rival tribal groups and villages as a method of conflict resolution. In the late 1500s Mughal Emperor Akbar had a polo ground at Ghariwali, four miles from Agra. He would even play at night with balls set on fire. But the British definitely first heard of the sport here. In 1869, bored young subalterns of the 10th Hussars saddled up for the first time after reading a newspaper report about the ‘novel’ sport being played in Manipuri, the cradle of Indian polo.

Hamza Mawaz, a three-time Pakistan champion. PHOTO: GUL MAWAZ

And as the British were wont to do, they decided to ‘civilise’ the sport. As with cricket, the colonial rulers used sport to transfer dominant British beliefs on social behaviour, standards, conformity, all of which have persisted beyond the end of empire.

So the British threw out the way it was played in the mid-nineteenth century in the Himalayan hill states. Here, according to Brian Stoddart in a 1988 paper for the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History, polo had emphasised the display of skill in handling a horse, stick and ball. There were no goals, no teams, no restrictions on the number of players and no physical boundaries. “Within twenty years it had been transformed by the British military establishment in India.” After 1858, Indian princes anxious to ingratiate themselves with the British scrambled to get in on the game.

Today the British rules apply. Two teams battle it out, each consisting of six pony-and-rider combinations with four on the field at a time. Players use long-handled mallets to hit a ball through the goal posts to score. Four rounds or chukkers last 15 minutes each. To be fair, players are pitched against each other based on their ranking or handicap. The higher the handicap, the better the player.

Princess Diana gets the giggles after Prince Charles smooches her in 1985. PHOTO: MAGESTY MAGAZINE, AASTA

Today, this version is played on the plateaus of Chitral and Gilgit. And the sport is a still a matter of pride and honour. Women shower players with flower petals as they trek to Shandur, the highest polo ground in the world.

The club

The British then kept a tight rein on which social groups could be admitted to the elite sport, which was largely limited to military personnel and royalty. “When my father played, it was an army game and no civilian was part of it,” says Tammy Alam, the daughter of Brigadier ‘Hesky’ Baig nicknamed after the Welsh champion Hesketh Hughes. “It was part of their training to play polo.”

In those days no money was involved and it was just about the glory, social status and lifestyle. In the 50s and 60s, matches would be followed by three parties a night with cocktails before dinner. “Players would stay at the houses of local players and this gave the families and players a chance to create ties and understand each other,” Alam says. Their children grew up in that culture.

The Baigs and Alams are examples of polo ‘families’ who can boast of four generations of players. In well known player Shamyl Alam’s family there is a tradition. On the seventh day of a child’s birth, the baby is put on a horse and a sword is placed in one hand and a pen in the other. “This rite of passage... symbolises that the child [will] grow up to be a horseman, warrior and scholar,” he explains.

Brig ‘Hesky’ Baig, three-time winner of the Cowdray Park Gold Cup in England.

It thus emerged as a game for the exceedingly rich and well-placed, and as Tammy Alam puts it, it is generally not open to outsiders. The prestige factor is undeniable — after all, you could be called upon to play in lieu of the Duke of Edinburgh, as her father was once in England, or rub shoulders with Prince Charles as Shamyl has. He interprets this as a “humbling experience” but it hardly masks the ‘cool factor’. And the ladies certainly like it.

Players are known to play hard and party harder, but they know that polo will always be their top priority. Girls may show interest in you if you are a player but as third-generation player Gul Mawaz Khan puts it, “It’s usually nothing more than an ice breaker.” They shrug off flattery. “Being a horseman, I am perceived as a snob. But I don’t think that is true,” says Shamyl. “The sport automatically puts you on a pedestal. You feel like a gladiator.”

For such players, polo is their life. “Once on the ground, you leave the world behind and your life becomes all about riding the horse and speeding towards the goal post,” says Ali Malik, who has been playing since he was nine. “It’s like playing golf at 35km an hour!”

It is thus hardly surprising that given the game’s links to ‘lineage’, some of the players look down on relatively newer entrants, who are perceived as social climbers who just play for the money. Shamyl describes it as “people who play polo and those who play at polo”.

General Sher Ali, Brig ‘Hesky’ Baig, General Yusaf and an unidentified British player.

The passion means that serious polo players from ‘old money’ have the wherewithal to spend the time required on the ground or in the stables. Sometimes a higher price has to be paid. Shah Qubilai Alam lost six teeth during the 2003 Pakistan-India World Cup Qualifier match after he was hit in the face with a mallet. “It is not one of those sports in which you stop just because you got injured,” he says. “I later found out that I had a broken jaw as well but it was all worth it because we had won the match.” He stopped playing polo professionally two years ago, but declares that it is still in his “blood”.

If you are not from old money, there are still ways to get in on the game. In corporate sponsorships, private companies pay to create their own teams. Private sponsors put teams together as well and if you can pay for it yourself, nothing like it. The good news is that you can train for free as Qubilai Alam runs the Junior Polo League where he turns entrants into professional players pro bono. You will have to still be able to afford it in terms of a lifestyle. Businessman Farooq Amin Sufi, who has just ventured into the world of polo in Lahore, explains: one must either work or only play polo because, “No employer will ever understand your need to take three afternoons off every week.”

Pony up

The saying in polo goes: four legs, two heads and one heart. The man and beast have to work as one. “You have to sync[hronise] yourself with a beast and work in unison to achieve an outcome,” explains Raja Gul Mawaz Khan, the grandson of player General Mawaz. “How could anything else be as poetic or regal?”

This is, however, easier said than done. “Training a horse is an art,” says Shamyl, who has been riding for as far back as he can remember. “You need to have a feel for the horse, understand its movements and have the knack [of] communicat[ing] with it. A lot of people can ride horses but not everyone can train a horse.”

Thus they don’t come cheap. A trained mare or gelding costs approximately Rs4 million, with upkeep ranging between Rs10,000 and Rs15,000 per month, excluding grooming costs. Sufi has invested in Argentinian horses because they are already trained. “I am a businessman and hence do not have the kind of time one needs to put into the maintenance of horses,” he explains. “One needs a manager for the horse, a permanent vet and someone to constantly train the horse.”

Argentina has created an industry out of and monopolised the sale, rearing and training of polo ponies. Locally the industry has little to offer. “The issue is that Pakistani ponies have been misdiagnosed to have African Horse Sickness and hence we cannot export [them],” says Fakir Syed Amiruddin, popularly known as Iggi, the polo player turned coach who runs an academy in Lahore.

And if someone does try to sell you one, beware. “A newcomer cannot just buy a professional level horse in Pakistan,” says Sufi. “No one will sell you their best horse and you will always be stuck with something close to second best.”

Polo can thus today be seen as a mix of corporate cut-throat competition and old school romanticism. Serious players say it teaches them humility, patience, hard work and determination as well. But perhaps they are drawn to it for the sheer thrill and glamour. It is after all, known as the game of kings and the king of games.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 7th, 2013.

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Mahim Maher | 8 years ago | Reply

@Saad BP We did not mention Shandur as much because we wanted to highlight how the British rulers colonised the game. Shandur has been written about a lot and this aspect not enough.

Usman Rathore | 8 years ago | Reply

Good read. Thanks for writing and sharing.

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