There is not much to say except *amazing*! For someone who loves horses, ancient traditions, full-contact sports and modern-day warriors, standing front row at a full throttle Afghan buzkashi match is literally a dream come true. The most incredible part is the horses – their power, size, and fierce grace. They know the game just as well as the “chopandoz” who ride them. They are bred across Central Asia – historically in Afghanistan but breeding programs here mostly disappeared during the wars, so most of the beautiful beasts we saw today come from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. They are worth more than many European luxury cars – the best of them selling for $60-100,000 dollars. They are owned by the rich-of-the-rich Afghan elite – high government officials, top businessmen, warlords – who then nominate their horse’s rider (“chopandoz” in Dari) much like Nascar drivers get sponsored by whoever pays for the car they drive. The chopandoz are incredible athletes, and practically become one with the horse they ride.
As to the rules of the game, as a first-time viewer, it didn’t seem apparent to me that there are any. I used to describe buzkashi as some sort of full-contact gruesome version of polo, but now realize it is far from that, and far more confusing. There are, however, objectives that are apparent. Basically the object of the game is the “boz” which is the dead, gutted carcass of a goat or calf, which is placed at one end of the giant, sandy arena. Nearby there is a 2m meter circle dug into the sand and highlighted with chalk, and on the complete opposite side of the arena is a bright green flag. To score a point, a player has to pick up the boz and carry it all the way around the flag pole on the other side of the arena then back to the white circle and drop it inside. Seems straight forward enough.
Well its not. First of all, reaching down to pick up a very heavy dead carcass from the back of a giant horse is a feat in itself. Add to that having 30 other giant horses kicking and stomping on you and your horse, plus other warrior-men also trying to grab the carcass (and you), or just beating you out of the way with their thick leather horse whips, and that alone would be quite a show. But then you have to somehow attach the carcass to yourself (by wrapping your leg around it) and gallop around a huge arena at full speed with all the other giants in pursuit. And dropping the carcass into the chalk “goal” isn’t easy either. As to rules, as I said, anything goes. The riders are constantly hitting each other, the horses kicking whoever they feel like, and if anyone falls off and gets trampled the game doesn’t even stop – they just pull him off to the side and everyone keeps riding. As far as teams go, there are possibly loose “alliances” that exist under the surface, but to an untrained onlooker it’s just a free-for-all. Whenever someone scores they ride their horse over to the announcer who ties a pretty red ribbon on the horse’s halter and presumably givers the chopandoz some amount of prize money. And that’s it. This goes on for several hours, and at some point simply ends.
The whole thing is quite violent, with chopandoz and horses both bloody by the end – and today’s match was apparently just a second day warmup during a ten day tournament. To me, buzkashi is the closest thing to medieval warfare that still exists in the world, minus the swords and chain mail. I imagine that all the pre-gun battles in Afghanistan – those fought against the invading armies of everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan and Timur – looked something like the heart of modern day buzkashi rumble. Swords might be lacking, but the fervor is still there.
Buzkashi might not be for everyone, but it is worth seeing to remember what battles used to be like, and for experiencing Afghan tradition up close. The very best part of all of it is feeling the energy of the crowd, loud and proud, cheering on their chosen chopandoz champion, laughing and having a generally wonderful time. In the West we take big sporting events for granted – from junior-high onwards every one of us has the opportunity to attend something of the sort. But in a country still pulling itself out of thirty years of war and trying to reclaim its traditions and heritage, a buzkashi match is a rare opportunity where even the poorest of the poor can show up and have a great time (although it is unfortunately generally male-only attendance). Whether Afghans decide to keep buzkashi as is, warlike and raw, or turn it into a more “modern” sport that could one day become international is up to them (I personally love it as is!) – but the point is that it is a vehicle to bring people together in a positive way. And how exciting it is!