Here at YPT we come across various interesting customs on our travels, but it’s fair to say that few of them rival buzkashi.
You remember clearly the scene in Rambo III where Sylvester Stallone is playing buzkashi and scores a goal with his mujahideen friends before a Soviet attack yeah? If not, here’s a reminder:
As depicted in the video, imagine dozens of men on horseback carrying and fighting over a goat carcass with the aim of placing it in a goal, that’s buzkashi. It is fast, it is physical, it can be brutal.
To be clear, the goat is very much dead. Sometimes it will have been decapitated and disembowelled and soaked in water for 24 hours to toughen it up before the game, though most of the times when we’ve seen it ourselves, the killing of the goat is as much a part of the experience as the sport itself. (If this part doesn’t take your fancy though don’t worry, it can be avoided.) They pray while cutting the goat’s head off and then kick the game off. After the game, it is roasted and consumed. This makes it quite different from a sport where a live animal is used, like cock-fighting, bull-fighting or fox-hunting. We can’t guarantee an opportunity to see the sport taking place on any individual tour due to security precautions, but when we get a chance we certainly take it.
Buzkashi is of Central Asian origin, with variations known amongst the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Uzbeks and Tajiks, as well as Hararas, Pashtuns and Baloch people. It’s played by Afghan Turks (ethnic Kyrgyz) and also Tajiks in Xinjiang, western China.
In Kazakhstan it is known as kokpar, and there are professional teams and matches all over the country , though most Kazakhs who want to play in the big leagues cross the border to Kyrgyzstan to do so, where it’s a much bigger deal. Every year on the Kyrgyzstan Independence Day tour we get to see the final! Amongst the Tajiks in western China a buzkashi match is often held around a wedding and the responsibility of the new bride’s father.
But it is in Afghanistan where it has become even the national sport. It is often played on Fridays and matches can draw thousands of fans. The Taliban banned it for being immoral, but it has made quite the comeback in recent years.
Buzkashi didn’t really have many rules, the main rule was not to whip other riders or deliberately knock them off their horse. The anthropologist Dr Whitney Azoy, in his book Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, notes that “leaders are men who can seize control by means foul and fair and then fight off their rivals. The buzkashi rider does the same.” Buzkashi is therefore a metaphor for power, rank and hierarchy, with a huge potential for prestige or shame to the man who stages the match.
Buzkashi players are often sponsored by rich Afghans, and indeed the horses are often owned by the wealthy. Both the players, known as chapandaz, and the horses go through rigourous training and it is thought that the best chapandaz are in their 40s.
The two main types of buzkashi are tudabarai and qarajai, in the former you try to grab the goat then race away from everyone else whereas in the latter you grab the goat before riding round a marker and throwing the carcass into the goal, known as the “Circle of Justice”.
The Afghan Olympic Federation tried to introduce proper rules, making it a game of 10 versus 10 on a square pitch and two halves of 45 minutes with a 15 minute half time break. Whether they get half-time oranges is not clear.
In Tajikistan the team element is mainly given over in favour of a free-form variety whereby individuals are all competing against each other.