Before setting foot in Pakistan, I knew little to nothing about the game of polo. When I walked through the iron gate of the Hammad Khan polo field in Lahore, Pakistan, and past the brick paved car park filled with imported cars, the little I knew about the game felt confirmed; that it was one reserved for the wealthier members of society. However, nearly every conversation I had there, with players, coaches, and passionate spectators, there was an urge to go north, to the Karakoram mountains, to see polo played in its original form.
The origins of polo date back to somewhere between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD in present-day Iran where it was used to train cavalry units and eventually elevated to being played primarily by the nobility. The game spread throughout the Persian Empire, into India, and as far as China. Modern polo, a game full of rules, handicaps, and money, originated in India with the Mughal Empire and left an impression on British colonizers that led to it spreading throughout much of the western world.
The rugged and unforgiving landscape of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan echoes the nature of the game there. Players riding into Gilgit’s Agha Khan polo ground wear nothing in the way of protection other than leather knee pads. In the competition that follows, anything goes. Players attack one another with mallets and check each other into the stone walls that line the field. A mob of spectators lines the stadium’s field, many risking being run over by galloping horses to steal a glance at the competition. Here, polo is a game of the people and for the people. For an hour of play, as the crowd erupts in excitement with every swing of a mallet, men from humble backgrounds are seemingly elevated to the status of the nobility that once played the game thousands of years ago. And as a mass of spectators rushes in to carry victorious players off the grounds, it can’t help feeling like the game it was centuries ago: a game of kings.
The photos below were taken during Jashan E Baharan Polo Tournament in Gilgit, Pakistan. Every year, the Shandur Polo festival is played at the highest polo field in the world in Shandur, Pakistan between teams representing the nearby towns of Gilgit and Chitral. In the summer of 2020, to capture a more intimate side of the game of polo and the people who play it in this region of the world, I will return to Gilgit to observe and live with a team as they prepare for and travel to the festival.