- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan — Eight helmeted men in white riding pants and leather boots galloped atop their well-groomed steeds toward the white ball as it bounced on a lush field.

One rider burst forward, wound back his mallet and unleashed a furious strike, driving the ball between black-and-white striped posts and bringing a round of well-mannered applause from the audience.

It was just another balmy Sunday afternoon at the Lahore Polo Club, but a world away from the violence, terrorist bombings and political turmoil that have dominated headlines from Pakistan since the Sept. 11 suicide attacks in the U.S.

It also illustrates Pakistan’s sharp divide between rich and poor. Most people in Pakistan live on less than $2 a day.

The polo club in Lahore welcomes players of all ages, sexes and skill levels. Girls and women here are given an equal opportunity to pursue the game.

“Women don’t usually indulge in sport in Pakistan, so it’s a unique situation here,” said Nadia Khawaja, 18, after playing a match.

It contrasts with parts of the country under Islamist influence where girls are not allowed to attend school and women are not allowed out of the house unless covered from head to foot and accompanied by their father, husband or a brother.

Founded in 1886 by a British military officer, the club is one of the oldest in the world. Despite the rise of violent attacks and political tension here, the sport continues to flourish at the club.

“For me, polo is a lifestyle,” said Ahmed Mawaz Diwana, 38, a veteran polo player and member of the club. “It’s an addiction; I can’t let go of it.”

The Lahore Polo Club has 225 members, 75 who are active. A staff of more than 400 — including horse trainers, groomers, groundskeepers, kitchen workers and administrators — keeps the club running smoothly.

Although the annual membership fee is only 12,000 Pakistani rupees — less than $200 — club Secretary Irfan Ali Hyder said polo otherwise is “a very expensive sport.”

Members who play regularly must have at least four horses ready for every match. Locally bred polo horses, which commonly take a year to train, cost on average between $5,000 and $10,000. Imports can run up to $50,000.

No one is certain about the precise origins of polo, but historians think the game initially was played by nomads in Central Asia before its introduction in Persia 2,500 years ago and later China.

Mughal dynasty founder Babar helped popularize polo in India during the 15th century, and the Calcutta Polo Club — the oldest existing polo club — was established in 1882.

Today, polo is played in 80 countries, according to the Federation of International Polo.

Despite its glamorous image, polo is often a rough-and-tumble venture, which is not surprising considering it was played by the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

In 1210, the ruler of medieval India, Qutubuddin Aibak, was killed while playing polo on a field in Lahore.

“It’s a very dangerous sport, but it’s a big high with a fast horse,” said Mr. Diwana, who was nursing a battered and bandaged wrist from an injury sustained during a match last month.

Before it evolved into a professional game, polo was used as a training exercise for army cavalry units. Military personnel once were among the top players in Pakistan, but that has changed with the sport’s burgeoning popularity here.

The Lahore Polo Club is also a place to be and be seen.

Many of Pakistan’s elite gather to mingle with the smart set, show off their fashion sense and, of course, watch polo. A few hundred spectators turned out on a recent Sunday for a charity match to raise money for schools in the Gilgit region of northern Pakistan.

The privileged few horse aficionados in this city of nearly 10 million say the polo matches simply offer a chance to step out on the town.

“There’s hardly any entertainment” in Lahore, said Noshima Saad, 40, who attended the match with her 24-year-old nephew Shihad. “We love horses, and we love watching polo.”

Kartem Nassi, 34, a former New Jersey resident and horse rider, said polo games provide an opportunity to link with friends in public.

“We meet here instead of always gathering in the homes,” Mr. Nassi said.

Miss Saad added that the club is not only a spot to see old acquaintances, but also a “lovely place to meet new people.”