Buz kashi (literally "grabbing the dead goat") is one of most popular sports in Central Asia and is the national sport of Afghanistan. Somewhat like rugby or warfare on horseback, it features a bunch of mounted riders who attempt to grab a headless goat carcass filled with sand and take it around a post and place it a circle, hollowed of the dirt, about 300 meters away from the post, without getting caught by their opponents. It is typically a very low scoring and violent game. The rider often whip each other, which allowed according to the rules. Flowing blood and broken bones are not uncommon. Sometimes people die, most often from being trampled by the horses.
Buz kashi (pronounced BOOS-kah-shee and known kokpar in Central Asia) is played primarily by the ethnic groups of northern Afghanistan and Central Asia —Tajiks, Kyrgyg, Uzbeks and Turkmen—and is not played so much by the Pashtun and people in southern Afghanistan. It is usually played in the spring and the autumn during festivals, weddings and circumcision parties and on Fridays. In the old days there were no prizes. The honor of winning was enough. These days prizes include cash, rifles, horses and silk garments.
A competition of power and wits, buz kashi tests people's boldness and their skill at horse training as well as riding. Generally it is played at festivals, important ceremonies and large weddings. Buz kashi is often seen as metaphor for Afghan and Central Asian horse-mounted society and life. It highlights nomadic virtues: courage, strength, toughness, quick thinking, and skill on a horse. It is said that the sport symbolizes bride napping and the struggle between the families of the future groom and bride after the abduction takes place, with the dead goat symbolizing the bride.
The origins of buz kashi is not known. Some believe it dates to the time when horses were first domesticated millennia ago. Other say the sport dates back to Genghis Khan and originally used a human carcass (but these seems unlikely as human skin breaks apart much easier than goat hide and was introduced to Central Asia and Afghanistan by Mongol and Turkic invaders. The best places to see buz kashi in Afghanistan are Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Kabul. Usually played on Fridays, the games are often sponsored by powerful warlord or traders, who host the games to show off their wealth. The players are divided into commanders and soldiers. When the Taliban was in power the sport was banned in Afghanistan.
Book: "Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan" by G. Whitney Azoy, an American anthropologist.
Buz Kashi Rules
Tony Perry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “There are no official timeouts: If riders or horses were hurt or exhausted, supporters carted them to safety. There were Afghan soldiers in the crowd, but no medical or veterinary personnel. In the scrum, riders yelled insults at their rivals -- buzkashi trash-talking is a fine art. The goal is to snatch the goat carcass, race around a flag at the far end of the field, and then race back and drop the carcass in a chalk circle. [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2010]
Buz kashi is generally played with teams varying in size from 10 to several dozen players. Play begins when the carcass is placed in a circle called the “Circle of Justice” in the middle of the field and the teams of horses start racing towards each other at a full gallop to get it.
The beheaded carcass can weigh up to 70 kilograms. The day before the match a goat, sheep or another animal is ritually slaughtered with a cut to the throat with the animal facing Mecca. Its legs and head are chopped off while prayers are said and the carcass is soaked in water to toughen it up. These days a calf (often black) is used more than a goat, presumably because it can hold up better under the wear and tear of the game.
In a simplified version of the game, known as tudabaral, a horseman must grab the goat and carry it any direction from the Circle of Justice. There are no teams, no boundaries, no time limits and every man is for himself. Points are scored when a player gains control of he calf and breaks free from the mass of riders. The game is still played in northern Afghanistan. Sometimes there are nearly a thousand players. Whether or not a rider truly breaks free is often a subjective matter and the source of many fights.
The more civilized and organized form of the game, known as qarajal, is played with 10 players on field with two circles, marked with stone or lime and representing each team’s goal, and a flag at the far end of the field. Play begins when the calf is placed between the two goals and the riders, beginning at some distance away, charge toward it and try to grab it or wrest it free from other riders. The object of the game is to carry the calf either round the flag of deposit it the circle. Riding around the flag earns a team one point. Dropping the calf in your goal, sometimes called the Circle of Justice, earns two points.
Buz Kashi Players
The riders are called chapandazan. Their primary pieces of equipment is a whip which they generally use to control and spur on their horses and often hold in their teeth. Occasionally they use the whip to strike other players. It is not unusual for players to get hurt. Common injuries are crushed thighbones, dislocated shoulders and broken noses. After points are scored, players often ride to the stands, where sponsors stuff wads of money in their hands and fans throw money towards them. "A buzkashi rider must be a real man," Haji Abdul Rashid, head of the Afghanistan government-sponsored Buzkashi Federation, told the Los Angeles Times. "Not just in his body, but in his heart and his mind."
Describing a Turkmen buz kashi player named Hakim, Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic: “A player falls. He rolls like a cat in the dust to avoid being trampled. His horse stops. He leans back into the saddle...His face is a mask of dust and blood, but his bearing is proud, haughty, fearless. He charges into the melee of riders now circling the man with the calf, clearing the way for himself with his whip... out of the circle a horseman flees with the prize. Hakim is after him like a fury. In a moment he is galloping alongside his rival. Then he leans from the saddle until he is holding onto his mount with only one boot heel. He seizes the calf from his astonished opponent and is off for the turning poll.” [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]
Sometimes horsemen not in the game illegally join the melee from the sidelines. Describing what happened to one such an interloper, Eric Sater wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In an instant the Patwan team set upon him, lashing and pommeling the man as he spurred his horse desperately to get away...The would-be-savior’s soldiers leaped from the bleachers, running to the aid of their commander, their AK-47s at the ready. Spectators dropped to the ground, taking cover.” [Source: Eric Sater, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2002]
Buz Kashi Horses
Buz kashi horses are mostly males that have been carefully breed and trained. The mother of these horses gets ten or more eggs a day when she is pregnant to ensure her foal will be strong. During its birth a colt is prevented from falling to the ground so as not to “destroy his wings.” Until they are three they are allowed to run free. Then if the horse is deemed worthy he is trained with a bit and rider but is never shod.
When a buz kashi is five, he is given measures of salt to aid digestion and is fattened up with corn and melons so that he can withstand the punishment of the sport. To get the horse accustomed to heat, dust and suffering, he is bridled and saddled and then stabled in the middle of the desert during the middle of the summer.
Once a horse is selected to play buz kashi. It is pampered and valued. It is often warmed with rich blankets to protect its kidneys from the cold. The horses are often fitted with hand-tooled saddles and embossed leather reins and bridles.
Buz Kashi Games and Play
In a buz kashi game often it seems like each man is for himself and the sport has no rules but generally there are teams and team strategies, albeit ones that non-Afghans may have difficulty comprehending. Much of the game consists of wrestling matches for possession of the goat. When they have the goats the riders often hold the reins in their teeth and kick and slash other riders their whips to keep them away. Sometimes clowns entertain the crowd during the match. Often the game lasts for hours and end when a single goal is scored.
Describing a Turkmen buz kashi game in the 1970s, Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic, “A score of furiously charging horsemen explode from a faraway gold cloud of swirling dust. They lash about with their whips. The tawny steppe shakes beneath pounding hooves...Suddenly they are so near we see the dilated nostrils and wild eyes of the glorious horses. The foaming beasts appear enormous...For four hours the games comes and goes. The calf has been torn to pieces and replaced several times. Not only do the horsemen rip it, but the horses have been trained to stand upon it when it is on the ground, and release it only to their riders...Horses stagger with fatigue”. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]
Eric Sater wrote in the Los Angeles Times: With the call of Allah akbar! (“God is Great!) “The horseman laid their whips to their mounts, as to the mounts of others, and galloped towards the calf. Holding on with only their legs the chapandazan reached all the way to the ground in an effort to host the calf, this carcass weighing more than 60 pounds, alongside their horses...A member of the team from Parwan...seized the carcass. A team mate grabbed the horses’ harness and tried to drag them both out of the melee toward the flag. The horse, its eyes wild with pain, and fury, bit at the necks of other steeds, as well as the calf...After a minute long scrum, which how the majority of any buzkashi is spent, another Parwan rider snatched the calf from his team mate and broke free. He galloped away and founded the flag, earning one point. Then he headed back towards the Parwan goal, dropping the calf inside the circle for two points. [Source: Eric Sater, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2002]
Buz Kashi Goal and Fights
Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic, ““A giant player with a broken nose has the calf. He is surrounded by rearing, plunging horses and almost goes down but he held grimly to his prey...Like a bolt of lighting, a lead tipped whip cracks and splits the giant’s cheek. Blinded with pain, he drops the calf.... Hakin has it before it even touches the ground. He finds no way out of the mass of players exept into a crowds of spectators. Not hesitating for a second, he charges, directly into the mass. There are screams, but everyone manages to avoid the frantic rider.” [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]
“This time no one touches Hakim. He rounds the pole and returns to the circle of justice while we his pursuers string out in a long line behind him...He drops the calf and gives the great cry of victory as raises his hands to the sky. “Halla! Halla!”...He receives his prize, an old gold coin from Bukhara, The chief of the buz kashi announces the game is over.” [Ibid]
Sometimes there are accusations of game fixing. Other times a team tries to slip an extra player o the field. When that happens the illegal player is fair game for an attack. Describing what happened to one such player, Sater wrote “Members of the Parwan team snatch their woven-leather whips from between their teeth and swing them across the man’s head and face, They hit him with their wood-and steel whip handles.” Sometimes these fights get out of hand and soldiers have to be dispatched to break up the fights.
Buz Kashi in Afghanistan
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistanm Tony Perry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “American anthropologist G. Whitney Azoy finds buzkashi a suitable metaphor for Afghan life: brutal, chaotic, a continual fight for control (in this case, of a dead goat). Afghanistan, Azoy notes in his book "Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan," has been largely bereft of strong institutions that provide security and stability. Instead, leaders are men who can seize control by means foul and fair and then fight off their rivals. The buzkashi rider does the same.” [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2010 +|+]
Haji Abdul Rashid, head of the Afghanistan-government-sponsored Buzkashi Federation and a former buzkashi champion, “has a slightly different take. Buzkashi reminds Afghans of their warrior culture, he insists, and the goat symbolizes their vanquished foe. A buzkashi game harks back to the days when warriors would put on a ritual to show their leaders how they had won the most recent battle. To drive his point home, Rashid invited a veteran buzkashi rider to the interview, even though the latter was still groggy from a fall during a game several days earlier. "He will be ready for Friday," Rashid said. +|+
“Friday is buzkashi day in much of Afghanistan. And so far, at least, the resurgent Taliban hasn't been able to thwart buzkashi. Rashid has large dreams of leagues, corporate sponsorship, television and even acceptance for the Olympic Games. Although buzkashi is also played in neighboring countries, Afghans like to think of the sport as theirs alone. As his groggy companion nodded, Rashid declared, "Buzkashi is Afghanistan."” +|+
Buz Kashi in Afghanistan in 2010
Tony Perry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Leaning far off his horse like a polo player, amid a chaotic-looking scrum of other riders doing the same, the rider snatched the decapitated goat by a foreleg and galloped off. He whipped his heavy-breathing horse for more speed while the others raced in pursuit. As they neared their rival, they whipped him and his horse and tried to grab the goat carcass before the rider could score. A game of buzkashi... was in full cry, watched by thousands of yelling, picture-taking fans, including hundreds of young men and boys who pushed so close to the field of play that they were repeatedly in danger of being trampled by the surging horses. [Source: Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2010 +|+]
“Safe from the fray, the local warlord had been given a place of prominence on a flatbed truck. Lesser warlords, protected by guards with AK-47s, sat in their SUVs. Banned during the Taliban's reign and resuscitated after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the ancient, archaic and only lightly regulated sport is bigger than ever, according to officials who organize weekly games in several locations in the capital and 17 outlying provinces.” +|+
“The the male-only crowd assembled hours before the official starting time. Some riders stuffed protective padding in the legs and crotches of their pants. (Headgear is considered unmanly.) In some matches, there are teams; in others, like this one, it's every man and every horse for himself. Two announcers -- one play-by-play, one color commentator -- used bullhorns to explain the action by the 40 riders. Peanut and candy vendors pushed their carts among the crowd. On this day, the contest continued for several hours, with a handful of scores. Some riders retired in mid-contest and new riders took their place. One rider landed on his head as his horse pushed into a crowd of fans, unable to make a sharp turn to follow the pack. Rider and horse were taken away by supporters.” +|+
Kyrgyz Buz Kashi
Buz kashi is called “ulak tartysh” in Kyrgyz, meaning “kid grabbing” In Kyrgyzstan, the sport is played with two team who try to throw a goat carcass into a goal defended by their opponents. There are few rules or restrictions. Before the competition, the head and innards of a lamb are removed and the body is soaked in salt water for an hour to tighten the flesh. Each team has six ot seven people at most and three or four in the least. Beside the match field, a 1.5-meters-deep pit is dug. The winner of the match is the team that drops lamb carcass into the pit. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
To start, a referee puts a sheep in the middle of the match field. After start whistle is blown, all players rush for the sheep. Players display their skills on the field in their ability hold onto the lamb carcass or fight for it against opposing players. The struggles for the lamb are exciting free-for-alls. When a player gets a firm grip of the lamb, he gallops off, with opposing players chasing after him. Then the player might stop his horse suddenly, with the other players being unable to respond, and swerve off in another direction towards the goal. Sometimes the sheep is transferred between teammates just like basketball or soccer players pass the ball. The matches often draw lareg crowds.
The Kyrgyz have a legend that accounts for the origin of sheep catching (buz kashi). In the time of “Manasi”, the Kyrgyz people fought against the Kalmyk people. “Manasi” led 40 heroes to a battle against the Kalmyk. They found their enemies used many riding skills to steal their sheep and cows, attack their soldiers and kidnap their women and children. Then “Manasi” used a sheep carcass to train his soldiers. The 40 brave men were divided into two teams, They practiced attacking and defending the carcass. After 40 days' practice, they improved their riding skills, and were able to seize back their property from their enemies. From this start, it is said, sheep catching evolved into a sport.
Buz kashi winners are respected and envied. Once the competition is finished, a respected "Akeshaher" presents the headless lamb to the winners. It is said that those who eat one morsel of trophy meat gain the legendary 40 heroes' power and wisdom. Relatives and children of a winner greet him with hugs, kisses and gifts. If the winner is unmarried, many girls show their interest in him by presenting him with embroidered silk handkerchiefs.
Kupkari: Uzbek Buz Kashi
Kupkari (ulak, buzkashi) is a traditional Central Asian team competition played on horseback. In Turkic “kup” means “many”. in Persian “kari” means “work”, thus “kupkari” is “work of many people”. In this game skilled equestrians compete to carry a goat or sheep carcass into a goal. Usually Kupkari is held in spring or autumn, when the Central Asian peoples traditionally celebrate weddings, as well as during the main spring holiday, Navruz. Often Kupkari game involves brave riders from neighboring regions. In Uzbekistan the kupkari competition is also called an ulak.[Source: advantour.com]
Ikrom, a young man from Samarkand and kupkari champion, told discoveruzbekistan.com: “Many years ago these races carried another function: at the side of the men's place for relaxation, a table for women and girls was organized. This was one of the opportunities for ladies to choose an eligible bachelor and for the aksakals to evaluate each one of them so that during the spring period of matchmaking they already know which girl to recommend to which young man and go themselves in the delegation of matchmakers. After all in the case of successful matchmaking they also receive gifts.” [Source: discoveruzbekistan.com]
The winner, who carries the trophy into a finish line first, gets a prize. In the old days it was a colorful rug, bulls, sheep and goats, expensive fabrics. Nowadyas, the prize for the Kupkari winner may be, for example, expensive appliances or a car. Ikrom said: “The winner is greeted in the choyhona with loud screams while the sheep gets skinned and put on the coals in a tandoor. An amazing meat in its own juice is prepared. Men eat, drink and share their impressions of the races till night.”
Kupkari participants carefully prepare for a competition in advance. They choose a strong, short horse of great endurance. The horse should be short to make it easier to pick up the carcass of an animal from the ground, because in the heat of battle, it often falls to the ground. For the Kupkari game, riders usually wear head protection, quilted cotton robes and pants to protect themselves against other players' whips. [Source: advantour.com]
Ikrom told discoveruzbekistan.com: “the decision to hold a local match is made unexpectedly as always, while drinking evening tea at the choyhona. The preparation takes one week. The men-participants gather the money.” In the old days “sometimes the money was enough to buy a Jiguli and sometimes even a Volga. Nowadays the gathered money is mostly spent for the organization of the feast after the races for all the participants and a good robe. The tables and wooden benches, kurpachas (cotton mattresses) and carpets for the trestle-beds, as well as the crockery are pulled to the choyhona. While the young men race on the steppe, the old men prepare plov, shurpa and tea. [Source: discoveruzbekistan.com]
A Kupkari match begins when competitors line up and wait until a village elder or other respected person leaves the animal carcass in the center of the circle and signals the start of the competition. Then the horsemen try to grab the lamb or goat from the ground and reach the finish line without losing their trophy, while fighting off rivals who are trying to take away the animal carcass. According to the Kupkari rules it is prohibited to attack a rival from behind or knock the rider off the horse. [Source: advantour.com]
The riders keep away from the audience so as not to strike someone accidentally. The audience is prohibited from helping riders, giving them the carcass from the ground. Horsemen can whip each other; it is not prohibited by the rules of the game. Ikrom told discoveruzbekistan.com: “As an experienced participant I can give some advices. It is better to wear quilted trousers and a jacket because the rules of these races allow the rivals to beat each other's hands and legs with a small lash. During the wrestle one does not notice the pain of the split skin but the scars on hand may remain. It is allowed to push the rival with your shoulder during the battle for the carcass of the goat or more often a young sheep, this is why it would be better if you weigh a lot. The rivals rarely fall off the horse, but if this happened I don't remember any injuries from the horse. A horse will never harm a human. One has to get off the horse during the game in order to mend the strap of the saddle and the races could last for half a day. [Source: discoveruzbekistan.com]
“The aim of the game is to gallop a certain distance or circle on the steppe with the sheep attached to your saddle. The rivals are alert, they are breathing right behind you, beat you hands and legs and pull one of the sheep's legs. Of course the sheep after such techniques literally turns into a sack of bones. I tie the sheep to my saddle by putting the hind leg of the sheep through the straps of the saddle the wool falls in wisps. The sheep itself also often falls to the ground this is why one must choose a short horse so that it would be easy to bend and pick the sheep up from the ground.” [Ibid]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016