The Game of Buzkashi – Afghanistan
“Buzkashi” is an ancient game played in Afghanistan and dates back to the days of Ghengis Khan (called Chingiz Khan in Afghanistan). The Mongols who originally played it on the steppe, lived and died in the saddle. It is played mostly in the north of Afghanistan in the provinces of Maimana, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kataghan. As a rule, women are not allowed to watch.
The game is played thus:
The carcass of a calf is soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough for the horsemen. Usually, a calf is beheaded, its four legs are cut off from the knee, and its insides emptied before soaking. Sand is sometimes packed inside for extra bulk. When there is no calf available, a goat is used in the same manner.
A hole is dug just so deep and the calf put in it so that it is level with the ground. Nearby a circle is drawn with quicklime – this is called hallal, which means “circle of justice” in Turkomen. To the right of the hallal is a pole and to the left another. There is no set distance for these poles but the spectators would not want the action to be too far away to see. In olden days, the game was played on the steppe and riders would gallop all day, however modern day rules restrict the size of the field (maybe a mile apart). The riders would encircle the pit containing the calf and on a given signal, would attempt to grab it and gallop away around one post then the other before depositing it in the “circle of justice”.
Meanwhile the other riders try to prevent that by attacking the rider and trying to steal the calf. The rider who deposits the boz (the calf) into the “circle of justice” is considered to be the winner – he may not have circled either post and may have stolen the boz a few yards from the “circle of justice”, but anything goes in this sport.
The riders, or chopendoz, wear high leather boots, a quilted (padded) jacket over a long chapan and a fur hat traditionally made of fox or wolf skin. They carry short whips which are made up of a handle attached to a piece of wood about a foot long encased in leather. The chopendoz not only whip their horses but also the other riders – especially the one carrying the boz. In olden days the whips were different and were made up of a handle attached to thongs tied to balls of lead (a bit like a cat-o-nine-tails used in the British Navy in the days of sailing ships). The chopendoz of old also carried a knife and sometimes stabbed an opponent’s horse or even it’s rider when attempting to steal the boz. It was not unknown for chopendoz to be killed in a fiercely competitive game. Nowadays it is a little more civilised (but not much) and riders still get hurt, but they are a tough breed of men. Often a chopendoz will get one arm or leg broken and mount their horses as soon as the fractures are bandaged. An injury does not stop the horsemen from continuing the game.
The Buzkashi horses possess special qualities. For instance, when the rider falls off the horse, it waits there for the horseman to mount it again. Some of these horses gallop with a terrific speed as soon as the horseman snatches the carcass of a calf as they have already learned the tricks. Those who train Buzkashi horses feed them special food such as eggs and butter at regular intervals as well as their normal feed of oats and barley. When the horse gets too fat, they have to undergo the kantar which means standing in the sun for hours, bridled and saddled every day for weeks. The sun not only burns away the fat but teaches the horse patience.
According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass of his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf. Like-wise, tripping the opponent by using the rope is forbidden. However, these rules are not strictly observed in local matches. A player who is thrown can use a riderless horse to continue the game. When horsemen are carried away by their excitement, they ride their horses into the crowd to beat their opponents but they are still chased by other riders. Sometimes, they choose a site for a pitch near a river and a few horsemen conspire to get their opponents drowned.
Winners are awarded prizes of chapan, turbans, cash or rifles. Not all horsemen may own their horses – actually, most of the Buzkashi horses belong to rich men who can afford to buy them and hire trainers. Usually, the owner of the horse also awards the horseman a prize, as his horse gains much fame in this manner. A chopendoz is treated with great respect and considered to be an honored member of Afghan society. His fox fur hat is the highest honour for a player.