Uzbek traditional folk sports include “kurashi, “the national form of wrestling in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They also play buzkasi (called Kupkari in Uzbekistan) — sheep-head polo even in the winter in knee deep snow.

Traditional festival entertainment includes dances, songs, puppet shows, wrestling, horse racing and performances by tightrope walkers, or darboz, as they are called in Uzbekistan. Tightrope walking is popular festival event. A national tightrope walking championship is held in Tashkent.


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:]

Ikrom, a young man from Samarkand and kupkari champion, told “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:]

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 Preparation

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:]

Ikrom told “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:]

Kupkari Match

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:]

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 “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:]

“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]

Darboz: Uzbek Tightrope Walkers

Tightrope walking, called darboz in Uzbekistan, has been practiced in Central Asia at least since the early middle ages. Rope walking and dancing shows always attracted huge numbers of people at events held in the bazaars or large squares. No holiday was celebrated without such a show. This national tradition has survived up to present time because it was passed down from generation to generation. Today rope-walker shows can be seen during holidays such as Navruz and Uzbekistan Independence and at national festivals. Performances are also held in the Tashkent Circus. [Source: advantour]

Rope walking and dancing is very difficult and it takes great endurance, agility and strength. The rope dancers – darboz- are mostly men. They are usually dress in traditional national costume, either bright colors or in white shirt and black trousers, which are tucked into soft leather boots. Darboz generally do not use a safety net. The height of the rope can be anywhere from to four meters to 50 meters off the ground. Such a height takes such huge concentration and attention, as well as skill.

During the show darboz climbs the rope and begins his show. Walking along the rope darboz holds a pole for balance. Unsurpassed masters are those who can keep the balance on the rope while standing on one leg. When darboz reaches the other end of the rope, he again repeats all his own stunts. Walking backwards is another sign of rope walker’s skill. In Khiva there is generally a chance to watch a breathtaking rope walking performance in the courtyard of Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrasa.

On a rope walking show, Uzbek Journeys reports: “In the centre of the improvised stage they set up a dor — a construction of ropes and the trunks of poplar trees — designed for the dorboz, or rope walkers. Then the performance was announced by loud playing of karnays and sunrayas, the Uzbek wind instruments, accompanied by drums and tambourines. The rope walker appeared on a thin rope, high above the spectators' heads, doing difficult and risky acrobatic stunts. At a height of up to 25 metres and without safety equipment, the dorboz, sometimes blindfolded, walked, ran, and did the splits.As the crowds gasped, the performance continued with jugglers, stilt walkers and 'wisecrackers', who entertained the crowds with jokes and poems. [Source: Uzbek Journeys, February 6, 2012]

Kurash – Traditional Uzbek Wrestling

Kurash (translated as “attaining a goal by fair means”) is a kind of national wrestling and similar to traditional wrestling and fighting practiced by other Turkic peoples. It is said the sport originated 3,500 years ago and was described 2,500 years by Herodotus. In the ancient Uzbek epic Alpamysh, kurash is mentioned as the most popular sport in ancient times. The great hero Alpamysh distinguished himself as a great wrestler. [Source: advantour]

The great Muslim scholar Avicenna considered wrestling to be good not only for the body but also for the spirit. Tamerlane used kurash to train his unconquerable troops. In Tamerlane’s time battles were sometimes preceded by wrestling matches and fist fights: with representatives of each side fighting against one another. It is said there were cases where straight fights between commanders ceased hostilities and decided a battle. Kurash was also a form of public entertainment during various events and festivities.

Over the years kurash rules, technique, traditions and philosophies developed and were passed from generation to generation. For a long time there were no standardized rules. Often times, different regions and villages, and sometimes even families, had their own rules. It was not until 1980s when Komil Yusupov — a kurash, judo and sambo master — carefully studied the sport and established universal rules. The result was rules about weight categories, terminology, legal and illegal moves, fight duration, uniforms and referees.

The kurash uniform includes wide white trousers and a loose shirt. An essential part of the uniform is a fabric belt used to hold an opponent. The girdle made of soft fabric measures 180–220 centimeters long and 50–70 centimeters wide. Kurash competitions are held on a special mat with thickness at least 5 centimeters, with a marked working zone (located in the center), protective zone and with a “passive zone” separating them. Two participants meet in the working zone. The only position permitted for the combat is a standing stance. The aim is for a contestant to throw his rival his back: considered a victory by fall. Painful grips, beating and submission holds, blows below the belt are prohibited. In spite of these prohibitions the matches are very dynamic and exciting.

A kurash world championships is held and there are events in Russia and Europe take place on a regular basis. The International Kurash Association, with representatives from 28 countries from Asia, Africa and Europe. was founded in 1998.

Uzbekistan's Circus Traditions

Uzbekistan has a long and rich circus tradition. Wandering actors, travelling along the Silk Road, performed in towns and settlements and were especially welcomed during festivals. They usually performed on central squares adjacent to the market area. Circus performances today feature tightrope walkers, jugglers, stilt walkers and 'wisecrackers', who entertain the crowds with jokes and poems. As these performances evolved, animal trainers and illusionists joined the shows and, drawing on superb horsemanship honed for centuries on the Central Asian steppe, equestrian events were added. [Source: Uzbek Journeys, February 6, 2012]

According to Uzbek Journeys: The modern Uzbek circus emerged in the early 20th century. In 1904 the first professional troupe was created in Uzbekistan, and the first permanent building was constructed in Tashkent in 1914. Later, in 1976, the blue-domed Circus was built and then fully renovated in 1999. Tashkent is host to the State Circus College, whose mission is to train performers, promote the centuries-old history and rich traditions of the Uzbek circus and to organize tours around the world.

Several dynasties dominate the circus profession in Uzbekistan: the Tashkenbaevs, the Zaripovs, and the Khojaevs. While continuing to innovate, these families ensure that the secrets of the ancient and original arts are not lost. Uzbek circus performers have participated in international events and performed in more than 30 countries. In March 2011, the extraordinary rope walkers of the Tashkenbayev dynasty took part for the fist time in the prestigious Golden Circus festival in Rome and won the Grand Prix, the Golden Coliseum.

Uzbek circus performers are frequently invited to join other circuses. According to an article in the Bangalore Mirror, Khamarshah Mostov and Elnur Imomnazarov, two graduates of the four-year degree course in acting and circus arts at Tashkent's Circus College, with degrees in juggling and acrobatics, are now under contract to India's Gemini Circus. They were inspired by the film Mera Naam Joker, in which the Indian actor, Raj Kappor (who was wildly popular in the USSR) played the clown. Tashkent Circus performances are generally only on Saturdays and Sundays.

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated April 2016

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