The sound of horse hoofs trampling freshly mowed grass followed by the clunk of a mallet has returned to Kashmir after more than a 60 year absence.
Kashmir hopes to lure rich visitors with return of polo
SRINAGAR, India // The sound of horse hoofs trampling freshly mowed grass followed by the clunk of mallet on ball has returned to a region of Indian-administered Kashmir after an absence of more than 60 years. The reintroduction of polo is part of an effort to attract more tourists to the battle-scarred region. "Particularly higher-spending tourists rather than the parsimonious backpackers," said Farooq Shah, a senior tourism official. Other government officials of the Himalayan state said the revival of polo was part of a concerted effort "to revitalise Kashmir after years of bloodshed and obliteration". The move comes as tourism numbers in the region are dropping despite the recent thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, the two South Asian countries locked in a dispute over Kashmir. Authorities are hoping polo, along with new golf courses and several gondolas will help reverse the decline. Before the Kashmiri separatist campaign erupted into violence in 1989, tens of thousands of tourists flocked to the region each year. Last week, polo returned to Srinagar, the principal town of the scenic Vale of Kashmir, when the Kashmir Blues rode on to the Sri Pratap College Grounds to play the Kashmir Reds in the first match in the town in 61 years. "We've a history of polo in Kashmir and we're going to revive the game in a big way," Mr Shah said. He added the game appealed to both foreign tourists and Indian holidaymakers. Since there are no professional players left in the valley, authorities invited players from Leh, the cultural capital of Ladakh region, to represent Kashmir Blues, and their opponents came from neighbouring Drass. The game follows other tourism efforts in the region, including a US$6 million (Dh22m) golf course in the winter capital of Jammu that is due to be finished this year. The course, backed by the Jammu and Kashmir government, will be the fifth in the region, the most scenic being an 18-hole course under the dramatic backdrop of the Zabarwan hills in Srinagar. The expansion of tourist attractions also includes establishing gondolas on Dal Lake in Srinagar and other locations, and holding cultural festivals within the state and in the Gulf, Europe and Asia. Tourist officials hope the long tradition that polo has with the region will give it a much-needed boost. Polo used to be played in Srinagar prior to 1947 when its benefactor - the state's maharaja - had to flee the area with the outbreak of the first Kashmir war. There were regular tournaments and occasional exhibition matches at the town's polo grounds, which have now been turned into a public park, a football ground and a car park. The stables were renovated and converted into residential quarters to accommodate top administration and police officials. However, polo continued to be played in Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. It was believed to have been introduced into the landlocked region in the mid-17th century by King Sengge Namgyal. Unlike in the West, polo in Ladakh has not been exclusively for the rich. Traditionally, almost every village in the region has its own polo ground. But now polo has been reintroduced in Srinagar after a Delhi-based sports promotion company, Equisport, stepped in to organise exclusive polo events. Besides Srinagar, the sponsors are planning to hold events at other locations, including Kashmir's premier resorts of Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Trained horses will be brought from Delhi and Jaipur, said Adhiraj Singh, the chief executive of Equisport. Mr Shah said the state's tourism department would bring instructors from outside Kashmir to train players. "The only Kashmiri presence at [last week's] opening match was of spectators and six horses from Gulmarg. It would be an altogether different story soon," he said. Officials hope the modernisation of Srinagar's airport will be completed this year allowing wealthy golfers and polo lovers to fly in from around the world. There are not official figures available to show how many people are visiting the region and Mr Shah declined to release tourism statistics. Greater Kashmir, an English-language newspaper based in Srinagar, said the situation of uncertainty had adversely affected the tourism industry, which is one of the top three revenue earning streams for the state. "However, the efforts of the state tourism department in keeping the flag flying are a story in persistence and deserve commendation ? They never seem to give up! In fact, they are utilising the bad patches to shore up the infrastructure in different resorts and are also innovating by reviving some of the long forgotten traditional sports as well as heritage walks," the newspaper said. However, the success of tourism in the region could depend on forces out of control of the state's tourism office. Businessman in the area said if peace holds in the region, then prosperity may follow. "We do hold out some hope of it," said Muhammad Ramzan Khar, the owner of a chain of houseboats floating on the waters of Dal Lake. * The National