The Shandur Polo Festival held in Upper Chitral every year has been cancelled this year amid Covid-19 concerns. The locals aren’t happy
The remarkably picturesque Shandur Polo Festival, held in Upper Chitral every year, has been cancelled this year by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Culture and Tourism Authority (KPCTA) over concerns about spread of Covid-19.
A notification issued by the office of the secretary of Sports, Culture and Tourism Department, says that the implementation of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) guidelines was not possible at a gathering of thousands of tourists and sports enthusiasts. It said the festival could jeopardise social distancing and safe tourism rules.
Shandur Polo Festival is arguably the most famous and largest festival in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). More than 30,000 people, including an ever-growing number of foreign tourists, have been visiting the picturesque Shandur Pass, home to the world’s highest polo ground at almost 12,500 feet, for three days every year.
Shandur valley is covered in snow from November to April. Spring dresses the plains with a lush green blanket of grass and a variety of wildflowers. It turns into a medium-sized town in the first week of July as the KPCTA, hoteliers in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and tour operators from across the country start pitching thousands of colourful tents.
The festival begins with free-style polo matches between B teams of Chitral’s Laspur and GB’s Ghizar and Yasin areas. The otherwise silent Shandur comes alive with fascinating folk music and folk dances, traditional sports and display of attractive embroideries from Chitral, Gilgit and Baltistan.
Six matches are played before the final day when the A teams face each other at the majestic ground known in Chitral’s Khowar language as Mas Junali (the Moon Ground). The ground was developed on the instructions of Evelyn Hey Cobb, the British administrator of the Northern Areas, in 1935.
KPCTA spokesperson Latif ur Rahman informs The News on Sunday (TNS) that the decision to cancel the event was made by Abid Majeed, the secretary of Sports, Culture and Tourism Department, after a thorough discussion with stakeholders. “The NCOC has not withdrawn the ban on festivals and cultural activities. The cancellation is in the best public interest as enforcing the social distancing rules would not be possible in a festival that attracts thousands of people from all over the country,” says Rahman.
He adds that the cancellation will not have a negative effect on tourism as tourists are allowed to visit all attractions in the KP. “We are noticing a large number of tourists arriving at various tourist destinations in Chitral, Swat and Galiyat. They are required to submit Covid vaccination certificates at entry points.”
The Frontier Corps Headquarters (North) had expressed similar apprehensions last year and advised against holding the festival.
News of the cancellation of the festival has not been received well in Chitral. Local polo teams have vowed to hold the event even if it has to be without the support of the provincial government.
Chitral Polo Association president and A-team captain, Shahzada Sikandar-ul-Mulk, says that Covid might not be the real reason behind the cancellation. “The provincial government has declared Upper Chitral and Lower Chitral the safest districts in the province with the lowest Covid positivity. Yet, they decided to cancel the festival citing Covid as the reason. I believe the administrations of both districts have told the government about their inability to arrange the tournament,” he says.
“We have decided to go ahead with the festival, and polo teams in the two Chitral districts have pledged to participate. They will bear on their own expenses. It’s not just a sport, polo runs in the blood of the people of Chitral and the GB. Every player spends a fortune on preparation during the year, hoping to play a match at Shandur,” says Sikander.
Shahzada Siraj ul Mulk adds that the GB has been arranging polo festivals without any issues and the polo players in Chitral will try doing the same at Shandur. “We will try going there even if security forces tell us otherwise. We want to show the government that we can organise the tournament without funding by them. We have done that for many decades.”
The Shandur Polo Festival has been regularly held since 1982. The final day features a match between top Chitral and GB teams. In 2014, GB boycotted the tournament due to a dispute over administrative ownership of the Shandur pastures. However, it resumed in 2016.
Finding a good horse that can survive in the low-oxygen air at the high-altitude ground, often referred to as roof of the world, is a big challenge. “A good horse can cost up to Rs 400,000; daily maintenance alone costs as much as Rs 1,500. Some enthusiastic polo players ignore their children and families while concentrating on their horses,” says Shahid Khan, a polo player from Laspur, Upper Chitral.
Shahid says it’s the dream of every player in the Northern Areas to play at Shandur. “In winters, we sit at the dinner table and make plans to outclass the opponents. Preparations start as soon as snow begins to melt in March.”
The Shandur festival gives a boost to the hotel industry and local businesses. Shahzada Siraj ul Mulk is the owner of a reputed hotel in Lower Chitral. “Of course, it is a big loss for hoteliers as about 10 per cent of the crowd in Shandur comes from other parts of the country. Cancelling the festival will stop their arrivals resulting in a loss of business,” Shahzada Siraj says, adding that “it is also a sentimental setback for the people.”
Shahzada Siraj ul Mulk says that the open-air festival is by no means a Covid risk. “Polo is a way of life for us. The people have rejected the cancellation. You will see hundreds of people of all ages going to Shandur on four-wheelers, horses and even by foot.”
Despite showing his displeasure about the cancellation of the Shandur Festival, Chitral head coach Amirullah Khan Yaftali, has praised the provincial government and the tourism authority for their support for polo in Chitral.
“The government has brought a lot of improvements to a number of existing polo grounds in Laspur, Mastuj and Chitral city. New grounds are being constructed in both districts. This has made the polo enthusiasts happy. Cancelling the festival that people look forward to all year is not a wise decision. I urge the government to allow the festival on a smaller scale,” the veteran polo player says.
Yaftali says that a polo team from Australia and one team from Lahore have shown interest in joining the Shandur festival. “Laspur teams will back the decision of Sikandar ul Mulk. We will participate in the Shandur event. We are also going to GB’s polo tournament in Barsat, some 12 kilometres from Shandur. The most exciting news is the announcement of a polo team from Australia. They have who told us they only participated in non-governmental polo tournaments,” he says.
The writer is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist, who has worked for Voice of America and the ICRC