The Localist

From the land of polo: The game of kings


Pakistan has a variety of landscapes, ranging from gushing rivers, snow-capped mountains and vast deserts to lush green fields. In the wake of the August 2010 floods in Pakistan, I happened to visit affected areas in Baltistan repeatedly to support its rehabilitation activities. Baltistan, a territory located in the north of Pakistan, is the home of mountains such as K-2, the second highest peak of the world, and Nanga Parbat, one of the most feared mountains of the world.

Balti is one of the most widely-spoken languages of Baltistan. One word from the Balti language that most people will be familiar with is “polo”, which means ball. Centuries ago the game named polo reached Baltistan via Persia, the old name for Iran, and before the whole world now borrows the name of this sport from the Balti language. Polo is still the most popular game here; each valley has a polo ground and every year in July polo matches are held across Baltistan.

Polo is called the king of games and the game of kings. You may wonder how an elitist game such as polo became affordable for the masses in an underdeveloped area such as Baltistan. The answer lies in the interesting and creative modifications that the people have made to the game.


As I travelled across Baltistan, I found children in every nook and cranny playing polo with small sticks, improvised from tree branches. The motto here is “two legs good; four legs bad”; you don’t have to wait until you grow up or become rich enough to afford horses to play polo. Playing on foot has its limitation though: You just can’t run fast enough.

The way the Balti youth have solved this issue is very interesting and makes the game even more tricky and enjoyable. On my way to Shigar Valley, I was amazed to see a group of youth playing polo on bicycles. They had mastered polo on bicycles in a truly dexterous manner. With one hand they controlled the bicycle and with the other they hit the ball out of sight and towards the opposite pole.


One thing I learnt from the Balti youth during these visits was that fun and enjoyment do not require expensive accessories. It’s all in your mind, and the way is always out there for you to discover.


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