Brutal horseback game of buzkashi reclaims fans in Afghanistan
Riders fight over a calf carcass during a January buzkashi match in the village of Bazarack, in Afghanistan's Panjshir province. With riders pursuing each other at full gallop and fighting each other for the carcass, injuries are common and during this match one rider was taken to a hospital with a broken arm.
BAZARAK, Afghanistan — If you plan to attend a buzkashi match, make sure you’re feeling limber.
As dangerous as the ancient game is for participants, it can be equally perilous for fans when several tons of man and beast hurtle, hooves flailing, into the stands. This happens with regularity.
Buzkashi, literally, “goat grabbing,” is equal parts polo and Ultimate Fighting Championship and it has reclaimed its place as one of Afghanistan’s national sports after being banned, along with most sports, by the Taliban. The history of buzkashi is murky, but many believe it was brought, along with much destruction, by Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes roughly 800 years ago.
Participants on horseback, called chapandaz or, more appropriately, pahlawan (wrestlers), fight to grab the carcass of a goat, buz in Dari, or calf carcass and then must gallop around the field and negotiate a scrum of opponents to drop it in a chalk circle on the ground. There are few rules and riders punch, push and tackle to gain control of the buz. The stubby whips competitors carry are just as often used on other riders as on their horses.
But the game can be as graceful as it is brutal, with expert horsemen leaning precariously off their steeds at full gallop to snatch the buz from the dirt.
There are teams, of a sort, but riders are also vying for personal glory and allegiances can be fickle. Prizes await high scorers, who can sometimes earn thousands of dollars for expert play in a match overseen by a wealthy patron.
At a recent match on a dusty pitch set hard against the snow-capped mountains of Panjshir province, competitors wore a colorful array of outfits, many sporting Soviet tanker helmets and heavily padded coats to absorb the blows of their rivals.
Brash riders preened for the audience ahead of the match, stopping to pose and looking off stoically toward the mountains. They brushed off the danger of the sport.
“This can protect you from an IED, so it will protect me from a fall,” one rider said nonchalantly, tapping his leather tanker helmet.
The Panjshir valley, populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, was the military base for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and is a hot-bed of buzkashi. The match, which took place on a brisk winter day, was held just down the road from the hilltop tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a national hero of Afghanistan who fought the Taliban until he was killed by a bomb hidden in a video camera shortly before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
On this day, the riders would be vying over the carcass of a young cow, instead of the usual goat, cut in half and (mostly) gutted to get it to the proper weight. The rough-hewn concrete stands were packed with men (there were no women) and some enterprising young boys had climbed a tree to get a better view.
Vendors hawked candy and popcorn and aspiring young riders sat on horseback on the edge of the pitch, watching with rapt attention.
As the horsemen took off in a cloud of dust, yells, and snorts, an announcer, or jarchi, in the stands yelled out live commentary, helping the crowd follow the dizzying action and giving short bios of the individual riders.
Breakneck chases were interspersed with tight formations around a dropped buz, from which thuds and yells could be heard as riders fought furiously to gain control of the carcass.
Several times, the horses careened into the stands, sending the crowd scattering and eliciting even bigger cheers from the faithful. Somehow none of the fans were hurt during the match, though a rider was carted off with a broken arm when he was pitched from his horse.
And then without warning, about an hour and half after the match began, the riders relaxed in their saddles, turned their steeds away from the pitch, and sauntered off. The game was over.