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Certain games are played by only a few and in certain areas only. In addition, these games are played with little variations in rules from one area to the other. One such game is polo. Played on horseback as the player strikes the ball with the mallet in his hand, this fast and furious game is famously called the king of games. This chapter talks about polo and the way it is played in Ladakh.
The History of Polo
“Let other people play at other things. The King of Games is still the Game of Kings” is a verse carved on a stone tablet beside a polo ground in China. Polo is the oldest organized sport in the world with its 2,500 years or more of existence.
Polo reflects everything that made the Mongols the greatest horsemen in the ancient world. Great equestrian skills, a clear eye and stout heart are required of a polo player. Polo was born in Central Asia, developed in Iran and attained its final form in the northern areas.
Patronised by kings and the horsed cavalry, it was played by Darius, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great. In India, polo was widely played in medieval times. Sultan Qutubud din Aibak, who built the Qutub Minar, died of a fatal accident while playing polo in Lahore. Under the Mughals, polo was the national sport of India until the end of the sixteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, polo almost vanished from India. It just survived in a few remote mountainous areas such as Gilgit, Ladakh and Manipur. Polo has been a popular sport of the rugged mountain valleys of the Karakoram Ranges.
Polo in Ladakh
According to legends, polo came to Central Ladakh from neighbouring Baltistan during King Jamyang Namgyal’s reign in the 16th century when he married Gyal Khatun, a princess from Baltistan. Others say that it was brought by the colony of Baltics, settled at Chushot. Chushot has its own polo ground where every year on 21st March polo is played to celebrate Nauroze.
Polo in Ladakh is not just for the rich. Every village has its polo ground (called shagaran). Sengge Namgyal, the King of Ladakh, laid the first royal polo ground in the Murtse Garden below Leh in the seventeenth century. The present polo ground in Leh is in the centre of the city. Polo is a part of the cultural heritage of Ladakh. It gets huge crowds, with people wearing their traditional colourful costumes.
The matches are played in the late afternoon. Ladakh polo differs from the current international format in player count and duration. Each team consists of six players, and the game lasts for an hour with a ten-minute break. Ladakh polo has two rounds of 20 minutes and rough riding.
The game is played until either of the teams scores nine goals. Both the ends change automatically after a goal. The scorer gets the privilege to patch up the ball. He goes at a full gallop with the ball and stick until midway point, then throws up the ball and shoots towards the goal with a clean, straight and perfectly controlled shot.
Polo matches in Ladakh are accompanied by music known as surna and daman. At the start and finish of play and to celebrate every goal special polo music is played. The music varies according to the tempo of the game and increases in volume at the scoring of a goal. Exhibition and tournament matches have been held regularly since the 1970’s to revive and institutionalise the game. It now forms an important part of the annual Ladakh Festival.
Polo is a very interesting game that has been enjoyed by the royalty and nobility for ages. However, it is played by all kinds of people in Ladakh and forms an important part of the culture there. It is a celebrated sport that has become integral to Ladakh’s cultural heritage.