Twenty-two men in traditional Ladakhi robes, from villages in the faraway cold desert, sit munching on lamb at a king’s palace. Madonna’s music wafts through the sprawling lawns, flanked by towering chinars, which overlook Srinagar’s Dal Lake. Millionaires amble past as regally-dressed waiters ask the villagers if they will have some more rice, and the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, along with his wife Payal, chat them up.
It’s a meeting of two far-apart worlds.
“It’s all like a dream,” says Mohammed Amin, 35, the soft-spoken leader of these polo-crazy village players who, back home, race their mountain ponies the first chance they get.
The players have arrived here — Srinagar’s five-star The Lalit hotel (formerly the palace of Kashmir’s king) — sometime ago from their villages in the border region of Drass, hours after playing (and losing 2-3) an electrifying game with India’s top players.
The national players play on well-bred horses that cost a minimum of Rs 5 lakh and are rested every seven minutes. The villagers, on the other hand, play on Rs 30,000 ponies that slog for as long as two hours.
Drass, the world’s second coldest inhabited place (after Oymyakon in Russia), is the only region in the world where the poor play polo, generally considered a game of the super rich. The game is believed to have originated here in the 17th century, although modern polo started in Manipur in 1844.
From the polo ground in Drass, one could see the landmarks of the Kargil war — peaks seized by Pakistani fighters, including Tiger Hill and Tololing. This land, ravaged during the 1999 Kargil war, was brought into the tourism circuit this summer. The hotel chain and the government announced annual polo tournaments, boutique hotels are to come up, and there is the promise of economic prosperity.
It started with a July 27 Hindustan Times story on how a village in the region, battered during the war, had lost everything except its love for polo, played here since centuries.
That led to a call from Jyotsna Suri, chairperson of The Lalit chain of hotels, to the man now sitting a few tables away — Amin’s new friend Jai Shergill (42), who captained the visiting team hours ago in the game a few hundred kilometres to the north.
“We are here for the long term. Tourism will change the face of Drass and this part of Ladakh,” Suri says.
|Jai Shergill and Mohammed Amin in front of The Lalit|
His journey would take him through the 11,500-feet high Zoji La Pass, where his grandfather Maj. Gen. Rajinder Singh Sparrow, then a colonel, had commanded an army unit that stunned Pakistani forces in November 1948 in the Battle of Zoji La. It remains a military milestone — the only time in the history of war that tanks were dismantled and taken up to such heights, to be reassembled and used on a dazed adversary.
“My grandmother — she is 94 — called me the night before I left and asked me to place flowers at the spot,” says Shergill, who belongs to an affluent farming family and has played polo professionally for 16 years.
Amin, president of the local polo body, grew up in Bhimbat village near Drass, where he works as a teaching coordinator. “We really want to thank the Hindustan Times. Our life changed on July 23 [the day the HT reporter visited Goshan village]. After all, polo is not just a game, it’s part of our cultural heritage,” Amin says.
“We are friends now. Friends for life, and I mean it,” says Shergill.
But earlier in the afternoon at the polo ground in Drass, it was war again — just sweeter.
People walked from upto 18 kilometres away to witness the game. Many left home at 4 am. The town council declared a holiday, including for 18 schools in the region. In a busy harvesting season, men left everything and came, and women locked up their homes. Hundreds of children in scarves ringed the ground and whistled and cheered — often more for the visitors than their own team.
“I can’t believe it,” said retired Brigadier V.P. Singh, a national polo selector, as he watched mesmerised. “This is a very pure form of ancient polo, it should be nurtured and shown to the rest of the world.”
When it is, Drass knows its life will change. With greater government attention, it already has a wish list.
“We lost everything during the war. Our cattle and sheep and ponies died,” local councillor Ghulam Rasul Naqwi told Chief Minister Abdullah after the match. “Please give us a relief package, one pony, one cow, and 10 sheep for every family.”
Abdullah immediately promised a tourism authority, and responded: “In the 21st century, you are asking for 18th century things — cows, sheep and horses. This shows governments have not done justice to you.”
He added, to applause: “Next time I come, I hope you ask for electricity and computers.”