Battling on the roof of the world

By Arif Mahmood

Relatively few people seem to be aware that every year in Pakistan, an epic polo festival is held at an altitude of over 12,000 feet, at a location befittingly known as the 'roof of the world'.
Visitors — local and international — flock to the Shandur Top in thousands to experience the sport in its purest, traditional form.
As the highest polo ground in the world, it is set against a backdrop of sweeping mountains, crystal clear lakes, and blanketing blue skies.
Visitors typically start trickling in a week before the three-day festivities begin in July each year. Shandur’s raw beauty is enough to leave anyyone awe-struck.
In these photos, Abbrar Cheema captures the splendour of the place. These compelling pictures egg us on to visit Shandur at least once in our lives. Full marks to Abbrar, whose dedication toward promoting Pakistan’s beauty and culture is unmatched. His work continues to inspire audiences across the world.
Polo is an equestrian sport with a history tracing back to Central Asia 6th century BC. Originally, the game was intended to serve as a training exercise for elite troops and was viewed as a miniature battle.
Here, the tradition of mountain polo first evolved in 1936, when Major Cobb grew fond of playing polo at night and called the ground the Moony Polo Ground. Till today, the contests are always fierce, with force, skill and emotions coming together to create a highly-charged atmosphere up in the mountains.
“The game of kings and the king of games,” reads the sign at the entrance to Shandur.
Free style mountain polo is undoubtedly the purest form of polo that exists today. This unique form is devoid of any umpires and formalised rules and regulations.
Riders dangling from their saddles duel for control of the ball as swinging mallets come head-to-head and horses whiz past each other in scenes that often go by in a blur. The treacherous journey to Shandur Top seems no cost at all to those keen for witnessing history and culture like this in live action.
Local polo titans from Chitral and Gilgit gather each year in early July to engage in an epic polo battle. Celebrities and guests have participated in the past few years allowing Pakistan to reemerge as a tourist destination.
Famous actor, Michael Palin highlighted the Shandur Festival in a BBC film entitled, “Himalayas with Michael Palin”.
But the Shandur Polo Festival has more to offer its visitors than just polo. Traditional dancing, paragliding, trout fishing and rafting in the Shandur Lake beckon to tourists from all over.
A colorful village of tents is erected to host thousands of people. Tourists typically start arriving a week before the three-day festivities begin in early July each year.
Shandur’s raw beauty undoubtedly leaves its visitors 'star-struck':

--Photos by Abbrar Cheema

Arif Mahmood is currently a medical doctor residing in the US with varied interests in South East Asian art, classical music, photography, and literature.