Playing Spoilsport

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Playing Polo in Kashmir was popular among European visitors who mostly comprised British civil and military officers escaping from the heat of plains. But Maharaja Hari Singh didn’t want the prospects of polo in Srinagar to be upset by allowing the game to be played at Gulmarg, Khalid Bashir Ahmed writes.

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Situated 2600 meters above sea level, Gulmarg is known, among other things, for one of the highest golf courses in the world but not many people know that at the start of the 20th century, polo was also played in the upland meadow. There were two golf courses laid out there.

A scarce archival evidence is available on the subject including a reference by author and the then British Resident in Kashmir, Francis Younghusband, who penned his famous book, Kashmir, in 1911. Describing the place and the available infrastructure including that of sports at Gulmarg, he writes, “There are also golf links, two polo grounds, a cricket ground, four tennis courts and two croquet grounds… What is now the polo ground was then a swamp”. He refers to “a sufficient number of visitors” coming to Gulmarg to “supply subscriptions enough to make and keep up really good golf links, polo grounds, etc.”

Polo at Gulmarg was popular among European visitors who mostly comprised British civil and military officers descending on Kashmir in summers to escape the scorching heat of the plains. However, the laying out of the Polo Ground at Srinagar by Maharaja Hari Singh turned out to be the death knell for the sport at Gulmarg. Singh was in no mood to let the prospects of polo in Srinagar to be upset by allowing the game to be played at Gulmarg. He stopped it altogether.

In 1931, some efforts were made by European lovers of the sport to revive polo at Gulmarg but the Maharaja refused to agree to the proposal.

On December 12, 1932, Major D Pott of 6th Lancers, Sialkot wrote to the Resident, GEC Wakfield, then camping at Jammu, “Will you be at home any time on Tuesday (December 17) afternoon. If so, may I come and see you? There is a suggestion of starting polo again in Gulmarg and I was appointed hon. sec. last summer provisionally. But before doing anything about it, I would like to consult you”.

On the proposed date, the Resident invited Pott over tea in the afternoon. After the meeting, Pott again wrote to Wakfield on March 8, 1931, informing him that he had consulted Anderson and Mobbay in Delhi to know their views. While the latter had told him that he was out of touch with polo in Srinagar, Anderson had agreed with Pott that “the fact of there being polo in Gulmarg would attract more players to Kashmir which would undoubtedly help the tournament in Srinagar”.

“It is possible that in July and August, a few players who would ordinarily have played in Srinagar might go to Gulmarg but I understand that at present the Srinagar grounds will hardly stand the number of Station Chukkers so that would not matter. I have not circulated any letter about polo in Gulmarg and it may be too late to do anything about it this year by the time we have heard HH’s [His Highness’] views but if he smiles on it, I would have a try. I shall be very grateful if you could let me have a line as soon as you have been able to ascertain from HH”.

The Resident, then camping at New Delhi, wrote to the Personal Secretary to the Maharaja, Nawab Khusrao Jung, on March 17, 1931, “I told him (Pott) that I thought he or anybody else would be ill-advised to do any such thing without first consulting His Highness’ wishes because His Highness has spent a great deal of money and time in developing Polo in Srinagar and it appeared to me to be a pity to dissipate polo by starting in Gulmarg. As you would see from Pott’s letter, he appears to think that the starting of polo in Gulmarg would not affect polo in Srinagar. Will you kindly take His Highness’ commands and let me know to enable me to give Major Pott a reply”.

The Personal Secretary was away in France with Maharaja Hari Singh, where the latter’s son and heir, Karan Singh, was born. The letter was sent on that address.

Hari Singh did not take very kindly the attempts by Pott to upset the prospects of polo in Srinagar in which he had invested great deal of money and time. On April 7, 1931, he wrote back to the Resident from Hotel Martinez in Cannes, “I quite agree with you that considering all that we have done in developing amenities for Polo in Srinagar, it would completely upset Polo prospects in Srinagar and do no good in Gulmarg, if an attempt was made to resuscitate Polo in Gulmarg again”.

“In the interests of polo itself, if for nothing else, I should certainly squash this proposal and give no encouragement whatsoever and no facilities to it [emphasis by the letter writer]. The mere fact that Pott has been Military Secretary to the Governor of the Punjab is no reason why he should attempt to upset our plans and attempt things in Kashmir. If visitors desire to come up to Kashmir and enjoy a good season’s polo, they can well do so by playing at Srinagar where we have established the best of arrangements in every possible way.”

On April 28, 1931, Wakfield intimated Major Pott, “I write to say that His Highness is not at all in favour of the proposal.” Having been communicated the Maharaja’s views so explicitly, Pott still did not give up his ambition. He wrote a long letter to the Minister-in-Waiting on June 7, 1931, “I do not know how many polo players have gone to Srinagar this year but I think I am right in saying that there are many players who do find Srinagar rather hot in June and July, if they have to spend the remainder of the summer in the plain of India. My own opinion is that the really keen player who goes to Kashmir for polo only, will continue to play in Srinagar on account of the good grounds and higher standard of play. I think however that there are many others who would prefer to combine polo with golf in the cooler climate of Gulmarg. For amongst such players, Teams would certainly go to Srinagar to play in the Tournaments there. I think in this way that although there might be rather fewer visitors playing Station Chukkers in Srinagar, which might be an advantage, if there is any question of saving the grounds there would undoubtedly be more visitors teams for the tournaments”.

“I understand that His Highness thinks that Gulmarg is too high for ponies. I have however exceptional cases of ponies not playing as well there as in the plain but in the four or five years before the war when I was playing in Gulmarg I do not remember hearing of a case of “heart failure” or of any pony being injured. I shall be much obliged if you would show this letter to His Highness and ascertain his views on the subject”.

It appears that Pott’s views had been communicated to the Prime Minister whose office on October 16, 1931 wrote to the Minister-in-Waiting to supply a copy of his letter for reference. No further correspondence is available on the record.

Thus the prospect of revival of polo at Gulmarg was laid to rest.

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