I attended a polo game in Gilgit marking the beginning of the annual Silk Route Festival. Little did I know when I was invited to attend that women here do not attend polo matches. I was accompanied by two college freshman age boys and as we neared the stadium there was a distinct increase in police and army forces. We walked inside one gate (heavily guarded by police with HUGE guns) and I’m not quite sure what happened but within thirty seconds one of the guys got in a tussle with a policeman who was chasing him out of the gate and trying to slap him. I never really figured out what happened, something like my friend asked if there were seats and the guy said there weren’t even though there were. After a minute or so everyone calmed down and we were ushered up to the nosebleed part of the VIP section as no foreigners or women were sitting in the other sections, only men. We were sitting between two men in berets with big guns and I wasn’t sure if that made me feel more secure or not!
Apparently in Gilgit there can not be any event without a presence of the armed forces. This is because there is tension between the Sunnis and Shiias often leading to sectarian violence. All the people I know in the area are Ismaili and live in a village 15 minutes by road from Gilgit Town so they are really not affected by the divide. When things heat up in town they just avoid going until it cools off. Most people in their village are also Ismailis and not bothered by such disputes.
Despite feeling a bit strange due to the fact there I was one of four women present at the match (out of a few thousand people) the match was quite good. It was the army versus the public works dept., and the game was neck and neck the whole way through. In Lahore the polo matches have rules and referees, but here it is ‘freestyle.’ That basically means ‘play to the death.’ I wasn’t too concerned about the players getting hurt, because hey they’re inflicting the risk on themselves, but for the horses I was concerned because they have no choice in the matter of whether they live or die for the sake of polo. It’s perfectly fine to whack a horse’s legs or your opponent’s head with a club during the match. As I feared, the game ended with one horse going down and all the men and boys jumping down from the stands to crowd around it. Totally inhumane as horses do not like big crowds of people around them and are limited in knowing their surroundings due to the type of vision they have. I couldn’t see anything due to the crowd, but my guess is that the horse was clubbed in the legs and its bones were smashed. Even in the states this kind of injury is usually not able to be fixed and the horse has to be put down.
So the game ended with the public works dept. winning 11-10, but people seemed more excited to see the horse’s unfortunate demise. When I returned to the house everyone was asking if I had enjoyed the game, maza aya? Hmmm…good question. I think I like it better with referees.
Polo Match photos coming soon: