On Memorable Polo Match—Shahgul Aziz of Gulmit recalls his best match

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On Memorable Polo Match—Shahgul Aziz of Gulmit recalls his best match

Polo, a game of Central Asian origin was played throughout the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Each locality and village had its own polo team. Hunza was one of such areas where wild polo was played along with other physically challenging sports i.e. swimming, hunting, tug of war and lifting heavy stones.

In the mid-nineteenth century the British cavalry units of the East India Company started playing polo. The British certainly played a role in the modernization and popularity of this sport. Meanwhile in Hunza the game of polo remained in its wild form right into the twentieth century. Physical strength to control a galloping horse, precision at aiming the ball and agility to dodge opponent players were the fundamentals of a good polo player. Not everybody could play this game as keeping horses was not an easy job and economic considerations mainly caused difficulty. Nevertheless, interest in watching polo games was never low among the population of Hunza.

One of the polo maestros of Gilgit-Baltistan Shahgul Aziz gave me a first-hand account of his own experiences during his career that spanned over forty-five years, as he started playing in the second half of 1940s. Although his career was marked by various memorable tournaments and polo matches, but he did consider one polo match as one of the most unforgettable matches of his career. He vividly remembered details of that match.

Shahgul talked about the Jalsa held during 1954-55. Jalsa basically meant playing polo. This was the time when Muhammad Jamal Khan, the last ruler of Hunza state, had almost competed his first decade in power. Jamal Khan telephoned Arbob Gulbast of Gulmit village and asked him to arrange a polo team that would go south to Baltit village, capital of the state. Gulbast replied that he would ask Shahgul. If Shahgul agreed for the match, then the team would leave for Baltit. When Gulbast asked Shahgul, Shahgul in reply asked him to consult the maphairs (elders).

2. Baltit polo ground 1934-35: photo by Lieutenant-Colonel David Lockhart Robertson Lorimer

Right in front of Shahgul, Gulbast telephoned Thum/Mir Muhammad Jamal Khan. Shahgul was put on the line. He told the ruler that if he wanted them to come, they woul come. A team was prepared on a short notice. This included Arbob Mohabat Shah of Ghulkin, Noron Beg of Gulmit, Muhammad Rafi and Amanullah of Gulmit, Abdul Muhammad of Dalgiram Gulmit and Shahgul Aziz of Gulmit. Shahgul was probably the youngest in the team as he was only 22-23 years old. The captain of the team was Noron Beg. A group of mohtabar (notables) who accompanied the team for the match were Gulbast, Yousaf Beg, Towalo and Muhammad Azeem.

Noron Beg’s team reached Altit village. The ruler of Hunza had not informed the team of Lower Hunza about the arrival of a team from Gulmit. This was because magicians had a very notorious reputation of changing fate of polo games. Musicians were sent by the ruler. Jamal Khan surprised the people of Baltit and told them that people of Gulmit had come for a polo match. In total thirty people had come from Gulmit to support their polo team. The whole party went to Baltit where they stayed at the ruler’s residence.

Shahgul said: “Arbob Muhabat Shah was shivering; his hands were shaking”. I believe it was an anxiety attack just before the match. From Ganish a special horse was procured for Shahgul. Shahgul said that there was an amazing crowd at Baltit Shawaran (polo ground). Baltit team comprised of Budolo, Tayghun, Dolat, Talib, Bubu and Gamburi. Shahgul was told by Ali Gohar of Ganish village not to force/strain the horse initially.

The match began. Baltit scored the very first goal and started attacking which instantly created a pressure. Shahgul got so infuriated that he openly swore at his own teammates. Now his whole team starting defending and did everything they could to shift the pressure. At last Shahgul wearing a number 2 jersey got the opportunity to attack. He carried the ball with deft touches in a zig zag manner and scored. The score was now 2-2. The women spectators waived their petak (dupatas) put on wooden branches and started shouting slogans, as the excitement surged.

Now the intensity of the game escalated. For the Baltit team Budolo was playing at number 5 and Tayghun at number 6. They together in unison came forward to put their horses against Shahgul’s horse. They wanted to hurt, corner and pressurize Shahgul as much as they could. These reckless extremes were part of the game. Although Budolo was at a distance, but he was so enraged that he spat towards Shahgul. This was probably to shatter his confidence and let him lose his nerves. All these methods of strangulation failed miserably. The visitor team thrashed the home team by a score of 9-4.

3. Winter residence of the ruler of Hunza in Gulmit: photo by the author

As per the norm, the winning team danced first on the music beats of the local musicians. After winning the match the visiting team went to Ahmadabad, where they spent the night. Carrying the trophy, they moved to Gulmit on the next day. On reaching the residence of the ruler in Gulmit the victor team started dancing. Arbob Gulbast made a speech in front of the crowd. He said: “First with the help of God, then with the help of my grandson Shahgul Aziz we won the match”. Later, Shahgul kept the winning trophy. He himself showed to it me at the newly constructed residence of his eldest son.

Shahgul Aziz played polo for forty-five years and retired from the game in 1992. His career as a polo player surely needs a thorough assessment as he played for various teams in Gilgit-Baltistan. This article is outcome of an interview held in August 2015 at Shahgul’s residence in Gulmit, Hunza. Shahgul Aziz passed away in April 2017 but his legacy continues to live on as he was not only the finest polo player that Hunza produced, but he was surely among the top players of Gilgit-Baltistan who made records which to date remain intact.

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