Buzkashi: Polo for the Nomads of Central Asia

Buzkashi: Polo for the Nomads of Central Asia

MIR’s Jake Smith has lived and worked in Central Asia for years, and especially loves Tajikistan – not just for culture, language, and food, but for sports as well.

I am not a sports fan. In fact, I find it quite difficult to share in the excitement that other Seattle natives exude each year during baseball and especially football seasons.

However, there is one sport that I love – buzkashi. The name is the Tajiki and Dari word for a game that exists throughout Central AsiaBuz means “goat,” while kashi means “pulling” or by extension “struggle.” Befitting the name, the sport can boiled down to just that – a struggle over a goat (and not a living one).

Safety and order are not priorities in <em>buzkashi</em>  <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Safety and order are not priorities in buzkashi
Photo credit: Jake Smith

As Turkic nomads filtered down from the northern steppes with their herds, horses, and horsemanship skills, they brought buzkashi with them, introducing it to the Indo-European groups already inhabiting the region. Nowadays the sport is most popular in the mountainous and less-accessible parts of Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and northern Afghanistan.

Goat GamesThe rules are simple. A large group of horsemen (chovandoz in Tajiki) assembles on a field. A goal area is delineated, and a goat (most commonly deprived of its head) is left at the opposite end. On a starting signal the men (and this is an exclusively male game in Tajikistan) race for the goat, pick it up, and race back to the goal area – all on horseback. A successful goal results in the chovandoz receiving a prize, which could be anything from a car or a TV to a camel.

Riders grappling for the goat, the prize, a camel, nervously backs away <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Riders grappling for the goat; the prize, a camel, nervously backs away
Photo credit: Jake Smith

As the pictures show, the resulting scrum of men, horses, whips, dust, and mud can be quite dangerous. Injuries are not rare, and the sport is played only in the cooler months so that the horses (and riders) don’t overheat. Many riders wear tank helmets left over from Soviet times to protect themselves from the flailing whips of their competitors.

Many riders wear tank helmets left over from Soviet times to protect themselves from the flailing whips of their competitors  Photo credit: Jake Smith

Many riders wear tank helmets left over from Soviet times to protect themselves from the flailing whips of their competitors
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Betting on BuzkashiI was very nearly trampled at my first buzkashi match and quickly learned that the reason they are always held on a flat area surrounded by steep hills is to provide spectators with a safe place to view the action. These steep-sided hills are also a great place for cultural interaction, especially in the calm spells between matches. Vendors pace back and forth selling snacks and locals of all ages gather from miles around. The atmosphere is invariably convivial. While I lived in Tajikistan, I never missed a match.

A proud chovandoz post match <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

A proud chovandoz post match
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Buzkashi is relatively common in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the fall, winter, and spring, but the only time games are guaranteed and planned far in advance is around the holiday Navruz, an ancient Persian holiday celebrating the vernal equinox.

Travel with MIR to Central AsiaMIR’s Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans small group tour includes the opportunity to see Kyrgyz national horse games which may feature the local buzkashi variant, ulak tartysh. Our Essential Tajikistan or Essential Kyrgyzstan itineraries or a customized trip could work in a game of buzkashi. It’s definitely unforgettable!

 

(Top photo: A view of Buzkashi from the top of the hill.  Photo credit: Jake Smith)

PUBLISHED: January 5, 2015

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