Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Warriors of the Playground
Text and Photography by Umair Ghani
Cell: +92 333 4669844

A little horseplay…is
The best way to….
Enjoy a summer day

This quote from the bygone days is presently the dictum of Pakistani tent peggers. As spring comes in the plains of Punjab and weather gets temperate—the flowers start to bloom and blossom—there are colors everywhere.

Farmers get ready to harvest. Lahore starts its Jashn-e-Baharan, the festival of flowers and fragrance. There is an ambience of celebrations; with devotion to mark the Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh, Hazrat Mianmir, Madhoo Lal Hussain Shah and lastly the Urs of Hazrat Shah Jamal. While the urban rejoice their festivals, the streets and bazaars in rural heartland of Punjab resound with placards announcing the schedules of coming melas (festivals, carnivals) and competitions in traditional sports of Pakistan. Tent Peggers warm up and bring their horses in the arena— to prepare for equestrian events delayed due to Feb. 2008 elections. As haze of uncertainty clears up, cool summer winds start blowing, the tent peggers in Punjab and Kashmir set out for more competitive goals than much discussed political themes which are a favorite topic of urbanites.

Though most of the tent peggers come from Pakistan’s ruling elite; they are politicians, bureaucrats, government officials, landlords, and lately the mill walas who are driven into this sport in wake of their sheer zest for adventure and a recognition which emphasizes the true spirit of this game. But the thrill and the adventure attract all folks to converge on these competitions in tent pegging. Since centuries tent pegging has been an integral part of cultural celebrations in the land of five rivers. A game in vogue since times of Alexander, tent pegging has also been a war technique before the advent of modern weaponry. Later it flourished as Sikh Gurus formed their army of Nahang Warriors, and much later as a major equestrian sport with its ramifications such as show jumping, lemon cutting and other feats of cavalry during British era. After independence, tent pegging emerged as a prime sports and cultural activity and acclaimed popularity among horse lovers. Despite the partition, the game engaged a great number of spectators and the players on both sides of the border in the Punjab.

However, after 1947 when newly independent states of India and Pakistan struggled through turmoil of partition and started great leaps forward— sometimes successful— sometime failure for modernization, the game came under clouds because of lack of state patronage which ultimately diversified to more glitzy more glamorous games like cricket and squash. Public interest in the cities thus diverted to these games of glamour, yet the landlords, bourgeoisie and the rural folk kept it alive. Funds were provided by them, horses reared, playfields maintained and tent peggers encouraged participating; who were paid sufficient amounts to go on gracefully with the game. This has kept the centuries old game of tent pegging still alive even though the competition from the urban games which lack the grace but do have a lot of pomp and show has really been tough.

For a long time, tent pegging in Pakistan became synonymous with National Horse and Cattle Show which was held every year in Lahore and was a mega event that covered all types of sports and cultural activities. But with discontinuation of this Show, tent pegging lost its patronage. However, the Mela Mandis [cattle selling markets] in Faisalabad and Sargodha came on the scene and the exercise lured other centres and regions of Punjab as well.
At such events, a hallmark of spring in the Punjab, arenas echo with beat of the drums and yell’s of enthusiastic crowds providing a fillip to players who then display the supreme feats of valor and competitive brilliance in the field. Buyers and sellers of horses ardently participate in Mela Mandis in search of choice breed of horses with eminent pedigree, as this can bring them money and fame. The best way to judge a horse is on field, where both the horse and the rider undergo a rigorous test. Such exercises contribute to a powerful tent pegging culture in Punjab, culture studded with mighty horses and valiant riders from all parts of the province. Today, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Chiniot, Chakwal and Rawalpindi in the Punjab and Mirpur in Azad Kashmir host prestigious competitions of the game.

Players from Pakistan now regularly participate in international tent pegging competitions and many of them have left indelible impressions by winning gold medals many a times. But there are tent peggers who feel the game has come to qualms because of present day players.
“The charisma of tent pegging has deteriorated over the last two decades or so. It’s quite unfortunate that commercialism has killed the basic rules of tent pegging. What we witness now is not the real spirit. It’s no more the gentleman players on the field” Says Basit Imtiaz Gill, a great enthusiast and proponent of the game. “The dilemma of present generation of tent peggers is “they don’t have living legends to emulate like we had in the past like Aman Ullah Bhachar and some others who are no more pn the scene and there is no one now to be followed as a role model. So young tent peggers have lost the quest to learn and love for the peg. All they yearn is 4 points that takes them to the next round. What a pity! You don’t have to be an accomplished rider and an ace pegger which the elite of yesteryears in tent pegging had—as a matter of pride—as a gentleman tent pegger. Just manage to pull a peg with lance from your horse back, that’s all our young stuff now endeavors.”

Dr. Farooq, a university teacher and an ace rider himself expresses similar views, “Digress from the basic rules and it daunts the very spirit of tent pegging. Serious riders, the true lovers of the game view this as something, which can ultimately destroy the future of tent pegging. The blow is too sudden and too deep. Most of the players, who otherwise couldn’t even qualify for the contest as riders, are on the scene and even manage to do well in absence of original rules. However it does help to attract more youngsters and crowds to arenas.”

“I am happy with the media coverage which makes the game eventually go getting” Retorts Amir Munawar two times champion of International Tent Pegging Competition. “It is good to have more riders on the field,” says he, while trying to collect breath after a very aggressive run. “Talented competitors push you harder for victory. The game is more competitive than ever before.”

A love and a passion, and its magnetism never cease to allure horse lovers. I was surprised on witnessing the loyalty of trainers and instructors. They lived at the same level of commotion with the horses, as did their owners. One such legendry equestrian instructor was late Malik Mian Muhammad Khan, who served in Mona Depot and later at University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He not only made a name as an instructor of extraordinary merit, but also had deep knowledge and understanding of equestrian world. His son, Malik Maqsood Awan also stands out among top equestrian instructors of Pakistan.

Even though the glory and beauty of tent pegging diminished to some extent in the modern era, mostly in wake of emergence of more competitive social culture and economic strains, it has become difficult for many renowned tent peggers to keep horses on their crumbling resources and they consistently seek patronage from their more prosperous comrades. This practice has generated a destructive cycle of its own. Mian Naeem Magoon, a proficient tent pegger of a tent pegging’s finest bygone era expresses deep regrets on deterioration that has tarnished the present day version of this grand sport. “What we witness today is a visible lack of devotion,” he says in a contemplative tone, “it involves a lot of money to rear a horse, and a lot of time as well. Many tent peggers can’t afford this and rely on wealthy landlords who ask them to join on monthly wages. So most of the players keep switching affiliations according to pay scales. One has to live like a horse in order to rear a horse. If you don’t have the courage to crucify yourself willingly [Khushi ki Suli], then don’t dare to step into tent pegging. It is a passion which grows as you grow.”