Buzkhashi: The National Sport of Afghanistan

500 Afghanis

Popular throughout Central Asia since the 13th century, Afghanistan has made Buzkashi, or ‘Goat Grabbing’ as it is translated, its national sport. Under the Taliban rule this game was outlawed by the religious fanatics who banned it and most of life’s other fun activities, in Afghanistan. It has since resurfaced anew since the Al Qaida had been set back by the United States and their allies after the Taliban attacked New York City in 2001. Images of an American soldier playing this game were broadcasted over the world news channels when reporters saw this game being played once again.

To play Buzkashi one first needs a headless goat carcass, though sheep and calf carcasses will also suffice, goat is the traditional animal. The carcass is typically treated by immersion in water for a full day prior to the game to ensure that the animal will not disintegrate during play. For added weight, sand may be placed inside. Then all the players need a horse on which to ride, and they separate into two teams, though it is more of a free-for-all contest. The carcass is then centered in a circle and the players gather around it. The object is simple: Pick up the carcass and bring it across the goal line. There are no boundary lines.

When the game begins, all players will race to the center to try and grab the carcass and carry it away to the opposing side’s goal as the opposing side attempts to prevent a score by stealing the carcass away. Almost anything goes in this game. Though the rider cannot tie the carcass to his saddle, and the other players cannot hit his hands, all else is pretty much allowed: Punching, Kicking, Knocking riders off their horses, whipping… Even drowning an opponent is allowed! It’s a pretty rough game, and not for the feint of heart. Wrestling is also a part of the game. Players typically wear protective clothing including thick hats, boots, thick robes and they wrap heavy scarves around their torsos.

The game was a result of the practice of stealing animals from other tribes. To replicate this, the goals would often be separated by a several miles, and games could last several days. Tales from earlier times suggest that there were games played with the bodies of enemies after a battle. This ancient game is more than a sport in Afghanistan. In a sense, it is the spirit of Afghanistan. It was likely first played near the Oxus Basin (AKA the Amu Dariya/Panj River) along the northern border of Afghanistan. Today it is usually played during special events such as a wedding, holidays like Eid and New Years, and other local celebrations. While minor games are open to anyone, only the professionals play the important maches. The winners of matches are usually presented with a prize such as an intricately threaded heavy winter coat called a “Chapan”, turbans, rifles and money.

The game has two basic styles: Tudabarai, a simpler version of the sport, and Qarajai. In Tudabarai, the goal is to grab the goat carcass and race away until there the rider is clear of the other players. The goal of Qarajai is to take the carcass around a flag and then throw the carcass into a circle called the “Circle of Justice’ to score a point.

The horses used to play Buzkhashi are not just any old horse. They are trained for up to five years to be able to withstand the brutality and to respond instinctively to their rider’s needs, be they waiting for him if thrown off, or galloping at speed when the carcass is picked up. There are two breeds of horses acceptable for Buzkhashi; the first is known as the Tatar, which is a small, but very fast and hardy horse. The second horse is known as a Habash and is somewhat larger and comes from the Turkestan plains. Only male horses are allowed in the game, and because of the cost of the horses, it is not uncommon for the horses to belong to a trainer, who then rents the horses out to riders. The horses are named after the dominate colors they have and the best horses are remembered through stories of their great feats. Occasionally other breeds of horses are allowed in the game, but it is not very common.