I came across some photos from my years in Afghanistan and felt such a pang of nostalgia for my winter and early spring Friday afternoons watching buzkashi – Afghanistan’s national equestrian sport. Apologies for the poor quality images, which do not do the sport justice. I have others, transparencies, which I hope one day to convert.
It’s a sport which makes polo look like a game for children. Instead of a ball, it is played with a headless carcass of a goat – the name means, literally, grabbing the goat – or a calf. The goat is killed the day before the match, its head cut off and the guts removed. The torso is soaked in water for twenty four hours to toughen up the hide. By the end of the match the meat must be beautifully tender, which can’t always be said for goat meat.
It’s the fastest, most exciting, exhilarating sport in the world and I became addicted to it when I lived in Mazar-i-Sharif.
The carcass is placed in the centre of a circle and surrounded by the riders. At the games I watched there was always upwards of a hundred horses, the riders paying as individuals rather than in teams. The teamwork is between horse and rider, where the incredible level of trust and co-operation makes it seem as though there a single entity.
As the signal to begin is given, the riders urge their horses into a furious scrum. When one, leaning at an impossible angle succeeds in grabbing, he has to haul the dead weigh onto his saddle and break free of the melee. He has to gallop round the playing area and return to drop the carcass into the scoring area. Of course, as soon as one buzkashi player grabs the goat all the others try to wrest it from him.
The game, although played over all of Central Asia, belongs to Afghanistan. Its origins are hazy though it is a legacy from the days when the plains of Central Asia were populated by nomadic tribes. Over two thousand years ago, the traveller and geographer, Herodotus, remarked on how the horse provided not only food, fuel, clothing and shelter for the tribes but was also vital for herding flocks, hunting and raiding expeditions.
Battles were fought on horseback even before Genghis Khan swept across the plains, conquering all before him. Legend has it that in the earliest days of buzkashi it was not a goat which was used but prisoners of war. Today it is still played by mostly by those tribes – Uzbek, Turkoman, Kazakh and Hazara – who claim Turkic/Mongolian descent. There were stories, not necessarily apocryphal, of captured Russian soldiers suffering the same gristly fate during the not so distant years of the Soviet invasion.
Competition is fierce. The chapandazan (master buzkashi players) look magnificent on horseback, from their traditional round fur hats, chapan (a loose, padded overcoat, tied round the waist), which provide some protection against other players’ whips. The knee-length leather boots have high heels, which allow the rider to hook his feet into the stirrups while he leans down to grab the goat. When requiring two hands to haul the goat off the ground, the rider holds his whip between his teeth.
These incredibly skilled horsemen have trained for years, spending many games riding on the edges, observing and learning. Very few achieve the kind of success which leads to being invited to ride the best horses. Not all the riders on the field get anywhere near trying to grab the goat. Only the most skilled form the inner group circling the carcass; the remainder of the field is made up of novice riders, horses under training, spare horses ridden by grooms and other riders who, although not chapandazan, simply enjoy the high level of excitement – and danger – at being so close to the centre of activity.
The horses, bred specifically for the sport, undergo an average of five years training. They are well looked after and fed well on barley, melons in season and raw eggs and butter. A chapandaz teaches a horse never to trample a fallen rider. I remember a pagal, mad man, wandering onto the playing area, where he sat in the path of over a hundred horses galloping towards him – not one touched him. The horses will rear on their hind legs, push and shove the other horses to get their rider into position to try to grab the goat. While he is leaning over, the horse remains perfectly still.
It is not a game for sissies. I think as long as a chapandaz doesn’t deliberately knock another rider off his horse or intentionally slash someone with his whip, pretty much anything goes. The Afghan Olympic Committee has now established a set of official rules but they are really only for games in Kabul – and the Olympics if that dream ever comes true. In Mazar-i-Sharif they played old style.
At the end of the match – around two hours and two carcasses – the spectators drift off, still hotly debating the quality of the play, favourite chapandazan and referee’s (yes there is one) decisions. And they walk tall and proud, for they have not only watched a tremendously exciting game – they have witnessed a re-enactment of the ‘old ways’. Buzkashi awakens a collective memory of their nomadic ancestry, their fierce independence, their victories in battle and their incredible affinity to the horse.
I’ll end with a poem; published in my collection Thousands Pass Here Every Day, which I hope gives a flavour of the excitement of the game.
Rearing, wheeling, plunging,
urged by leather-booted heels –
a rugby scrum of horses.
Whips and hooves, knife sharp,
slice frozen winter air as rising dust
meets sweat and steaming breath.
Laws of gravity ignored, a horseman leans,
crazy-angled, reins between clenched teeth,
and grabs the goat.
Men and animals scream defiance,
the maelstrom melts, dissolves –
a tidal wave of horses.
Thundering hooves become
thudding heartbeats, spectators roar approval,
ancestral memories stirred
by sounds and scents of victory.
No longer taxi drivers, labourers, shopkeepers,
they are Genghis Khan’s army streaming –
invincible – across Asia’s plains.
Tomorrow, the sound and the fury gone,
they’ll be shopkeepers again.