It’s called “the ancestors’ game.” For centuries, the people of Ladakh District, in far-northern India, have prized polo among their many rich traditions and customs of this former kingdom. For more than 30 years, the annual polo championship has been an integral part of the Ladakh Festival in early September.
Against the majestic backdrop of the Himalayas, the local civilian and Army teams battle it out in a haphazard, no-rules display of sportsmanship. This is not the civilized, British adaptation of polo that emerged in the 19th century, with four players, six 7-1/2 minute periods of play (chukkas), and three-minute breaks in between. In this version, seven players per side ride small horses that heave to keep pace with the whip.
Games last for an hour, with one 10-minute break at halftime, and some observers say the best advantage is not a player’s skill but the youthfulness of his mount. Wild dogs roam the field and miraculously evade pounding hooves. Another handicap is the altitude: Leh is perched at 11,500 feet.
The championship is sponsored by the State Tourism Office of the Indian government, and hundreds of villagers, city dwellers, and foreign tourists turn out to watch at their own risk, as they may occasionally find themselves at the forefront of the action.