12 Yrs After Kargil War, Battlefield Converts Into Polo Ground10 July 2011
Drass: From being a war zone 12 years ago, the sparsely populated town of Drass in Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir has recovered from the battle scars. The road to Drass goes through god's forgotten lands - there is silence and wilderness for miles and an unending number of mountain peaks. In 1999, an Indian war machine was mobilised and crawled through these mountainous roads to reach Drass, 150 kms and a seven-hour journey from Srinagar. It was a battle then, a fight to take control of Tiger Hill and Tololing Hill where Pakistani forces had barricaded themselves and were shelling the National Highway (NH) 1D in an attempt to cut off the Ladakh region. The army celebrates the 12th anniversary of its victory on July 26 and Drass is no longer a ghost town as the former battlefields are now hosting polo matches. Crowds, which have come from all across Drass, cheer with endless energy as horses gallop in a dusty field and players on horsebacks hit the ball. From the ground where the match is being played, you can clear see, in all their majesty, the Tiger and Tololing hills - both of which have been part of plot of several Bollywood films made in the aftermath of Kargil War, including the Hrithik Roshan starrer 'Lakshya'. These are times of peace in Kashmir, no major infiltration has been reported this year, there has been no major attack and there have been no street protests. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who was the chief guest at the Lalit Suri Polo 2011 tournament, said the government will try to bring Drass on the tourism map of the state. 'Drass is famous for two things - one is the 1999 Kargil War which was fought at Tiger Hill and other places and before that Drass was known as the world's second coldest place, but other than that people did not know much (about) Drass,' Omar said. Gayasuddin has walked nearly eight miles from Pandras village, to watch the match. He had been displaced during the Kargil war and shifted with his family to Srinagar. Apart from being a student, he also works as a porter for the army and takes food and other supplies to mountain redoubts of army. 'Now it is okay here. Things have gone back to normal. When Kargil war began, I moved with my family to Srinagar. No one stayed here,' Gayassuddin said. Mohammad Amin, a polo player from Drass, said the game was 'almost forgotten' by the people in the years that followed the Kargil war. 'No one thought of playing it again because we were busy with getting our lives on track which were shattered by the war,' Amin said. It was three years ago that Army took the initiative and organised a polo tournament. Now there are 24 local polo teams in Drass alone. 'When we play polo, we concentrate on the ball, and for those moments we forget there was ever a war here,' Amin said. The polo at Drass has different rules as compared to the game played at international level - the difference being that there are very few rules. It is played in a more 'macho' style, in a more aggressive manner, says a player. The exquisite locations, hospitality and the grandeur of the region have also attracted a few Europeans to the venue. Carine Barbe, a French woman and Ramon, a Spaniard, have something to cherish about their trip to Drass. 'Carine has become the first woman player to hit the ball at 10,000 ft, and Ramon is the first European to hit a goal in a polo match at 10,000 ft,' a tournament organiser said. Carine said she is among the only three women players registered with the Indian Polo Association. 'I think I am the first European woman to play here, so it is great for me. And I know there was a big war in 1999, so it is good for the people that these tournaments happen,' Carine said. Ramon said the experience of playing polo at Drass was 'breathtaking'. Outside, a section of NH-1D which was heavily shelled during the war today has a two feet wide and more than 15 metre high wall around it. The wall - built with a purpose to protect the passing convoys of army from mortar shelling - today this wall is a reminiscent of the past.