Stories From The Camp: The Polo Experience
At TUTC, you experience India’s dramatic landscapes and also get an insight into the traditional fanfare of the region. In this article, Rupert Winchester tells you all about Polo, Ladakh’s favourite game
The game of polo nowadays is associated, in the West, with wealth and power, with Argentinian playboys, private jets and society ladies sipping Champagne on summer afternoons while pressing divots of grass back into the turf with their high heels. Not so much in Ladakh.
Here in Ladakh, where polo has been played for hundreds of years, it is a grittier kind of game.
Ladakh claims to have invented the game of polo; as with much of the cultural history of this glorious part of the world, that isn’t entirely true, but the name polo probably comes from the Baltic word pulu, meaning ball, so it’s close. (Polo was actually invented in ancient Persia sometime around the 6th century BC.)
We were lucky enough to get to watch a game of polo up here last week, and a most entertaining affair it proved to be, if a little short on Champagne.
The polo ground was in the centre of a vast strip of arid dusty sand and gravel, surrounded by the towering snow-capped peaks either side of the Indus Valley. Brightly coloured flags marked out the extent of the huge pitch. A small marquee had been erected for our guests.
The ponies were unloaded from a lorry: they were almost unfeasibly small. Ladakhis aren’t the largest people in the world, but they still towered over these little horses; I worried that they would collapse under the weight. Obviously, I shouldn’t have worried: these staunch ponies were more than equal to the task, carrying their riders with unbelievable speed and dexterity.
The match, between teams from the Indus Valley and from the Ladakh Animal Husbandry Department was a thrilling affair: energetic, graceful, suffused with power and brute athleticism, but played with great sportsmanship. The little horses thundered across the dirt, the riders swiping at the tiny ball with their great wooden mallets, kicking up sprays of dust, turning on a sixpence, hammering the ball through the goalposts.
It’s not a sight you see every day: eight riders, gloriously arrayed in silk jackets, on tiny ponies, flying across the desert, surrounded by vast mountain ranges and the endless blue of the cloudless sky.
At half time, we ate cucumber sandwiches and pakoras, and drank ginger tea in the warm afternoon sunshine. Animal Husbandry eventually triumphed, and were presented with a not insignificant-sized trophy for their efforts. It was, all in all, a tremendous afternoon: exciting, traditional, beautiful, thrilling and unusual. Truly, things are different in Ladakh.
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