For honor, glory and carpets

Buzkashi, which literally translates to “goat dragging” in Persian, is one of the craziest sports of the ancient world. It is still widely played across Central Asia today. Think rugby meets polo, but switch the ball for a goat’s carcass. Instead of 30 players on the pitch for the former and 8 in the latter, drag-and-drop 200 horsemen onto the field. This is Buzkashi, also known as Banzai-meets-Harakiri.

Banzai meets Harakiri

Banzai meets Harakiri

The origins of the game are lost in history, but I particularly like the version where the people of Central Asia would ride back to their towns (pillaged by the Mongols) to salvage and grab their flock at full gallop. I got to witness the spectacle last week, at Hissar district about an hour outside the capital city of Dushanbe. Here are the pictures as told through my short piece of work on exposure.   

There are multiple versions of the game today, and there are even formal rules set up by the Afghan Olympic Federation to govern the sport, but that is only limited to games played in Kabul. Across Central Asia, you will witness two distinct formats: team play and free-form. The madness I witnessed last week was free-form. Yes, every-horseman-for-himself. I asked my friend Sarhob, “So, in this Tajik-version, how do you win?” He pointed across the field, where about 100 large rolled-up rugs lay on an old truck and remarked, “In this game, each time  you score a point, you win a carpet!” That’s why the truck was parked there! I thought it was the most random one-stall-bazaar ever, in the middle of a crazy horse game. However, like most Central Asia cultures, the honor of winning outweighs the prize of the carpets. I went on to learn a lot more about the Tajik version I was witnessing, including how it is a completely free BYOH (bring-your-own-horse) game, and anyone can ride his horse onto the field to vie for the carcass. If you do not wish to participate, you can simply sit on your horse and hang out at the side. For a moment I thought I could ride a horse onto the pitch to try it out, then again I could also jump of a bridge – same outcome I reckon.

For the curious, here are some FAQs:

  1. Is the goat dead? Yes, it is a carcass. The goat is killed the night before, and soaked in water to make the hide tough.
  2. How heavy is the carcass? Between 25-50kg. It is NOT easy to get hold of that thing.
  3. How do you score? Find your way to the carcass, grab it, fend off 200 other opponents and drop it off between two humps of sand to score.
  4. How long does the game last? Hours, or until the carpets run out.
  5. Are whips used? Yes – both on the horse and the horseman! Ouch.
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