Shandur and Polo

Mumtaz Hussain

Freestyle Polo

The horse was first domesticated in the regions of Central Asia and southern Russia. The area has remained famous for horse breeding. It was here that a game played on horses was invented, which was named Chogan in Persian. This game reached India from Central Asia through the Turk Kings, and on the other hand through Tibet it became popular in mountainous region of Baltistan, Gilgit and Chitral. The small hill chieftains here patronized the game and a special form of it, now known as Freestyle Polo, came into vogue. Polo is a Balti (a Tibetan language spoken in Baltistan) word meaning ball. In Khowar, the language of Chitral, this game is called Istor Ghar. During the 19th century, the British came across this game in the region and introduced it to the world. That is why the game is called polo all over the world.

Every big village in Chitral, Gilgit and Baltistan owns a polo playing ground. This field is usually where the road from the outside enters the village. In the past, horses were kept in this area for both riding and playing polo. In Chitral and Gilgit two breeds of horse were in vogue, one indigenous and the other Badakhshani, Badakhshan horses being bigger and stronger than the local breed. Nowadays, horses of fine breed are brought from other regions, among which those of Punjabi bread are more popular. Thoroughbred and Half-breedhorses are also used in local polo. Now-a-days horses are kept here only to play polo as it is no longer used for riding.


A branch of the Hindu Kush Mountain range, which separates the valleys of Chitral and Gilgit, is called Hinduraj. The mountain is crossed by several passes, the easiest of them being Shandur. The saddle of the pass is a level plain at altitude of about twelve thousand feet is a plain with two lakes. This plain and the surrounding hills are used as pastures in summer and the people of the valleys below stay here with their flocks for months. These people have also been playing polo in this field from time to time. A regular road passes through this pass which connects the areas of Gilgit and Chitral. There were several principalities in the valleys of Gilgit and Chitral whose rulers sometimes invited each other to play polo here in summer. Thus, a tradition of polo playing on Shandur field became part of the local folklore. The British civil and military officers also took special interest in polo and several matches of the game were held at Shandur under the supervision of British officers posted in Gilgit or Chitral.

The Shandur Festival

Since this place is quite far from the cities of Chitral and Gilgit and there was no vehicular road, it was difficult to hold polo matches every year. By 1980, when the condition of the roads in the area improved, yearly polo competitions began in Shandur. The event now takes place regularly in early July every year. Main event of the festival is a polo match between teams of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral teams. Apart from this, side matches are also played between several smaller teams. On this occasion, a city of tents would settle here for a while, where cultural activities other than polo take place. There are regional music and dance demonstrations, handicraft exhibitions and regional storytelling stalls.

Shandur Festival has become more of a cultural festival than a sports event where tourists come from all over Pakistan and the world. It is the biggest cultural event held regularly in Pakistan. Gilgit or Chitral routes can be used to reach Shandur. Distance from Islamabad to Shandur via Gilgit is 700 km, while from Peshawar to Shandur via Chitral is 385 km.

Shandur Polo Festival Pictures
by Carl Welsby, Pembrokeshire, UK.

A Website on the Culture, History and Languages of Chitral.
Contact: mahraka.mail@gmail.com