Buzkashi on a cold December morning

December mornings in Kabul are generally cold and frosty. The hands freeze in sub-zero temperature and nose becomes chronically inflamed like in the condition of rhinophyma. On one such morning, in an open field tucked between the rocky hills in Kabul’s Kasaba area, braving cold weather and threats, vendors made a beeline to sell popcorn as thousands of animated spectators made their way into a large field. Young and old jostled for a space on the edge of ropes, to get a clearer and closer view.

Within a few moments, posse of battle-hardened riders on horseback, called chapandaz in local Dari language entered the field. They were greeted with thunderous applause, which echoed in the hills around. As the players with kamcheen (whip) in their hand, high leather boots, padded jacket and fur hat made their way to the centre, I quickly took out camera to capture the moment. They paused for a moment, posed for the audience and stoically looked at the gravelly hills around the dilapidated field.

It was 8 O’clock in the morning. The sun was hidden under a thick blanket of dark clouds. The visibility was low and the noise was deafening. All eyes were on a headless carcass of a goat, called buz, placed in the middle of field, surrounded by around 60 riders on horseback from both teams. The game got underway, and the riders, sporting colorful attire, wrestled in a dangerous and free-wheeling battle on a dusty pitch to keep control of a headless carcass of goat and steer it across the goal line, past a scrum of fast and ferocious opponents.

I jostled for a space near ropes, as high-adrenaline action unfolded and riders charged at each other furiously and ferociously like we only see in the battlefield

I jostled for a space near ropes, as high-adrenaline action unfolded and riders charged at each other furiously and ferociously like we only see in the battlefield. Of course, it was a battlefield, minus bullets and bombs. A test of brute strength. The players from opposite teams grabbed the headless goat’s carcass, and their horses galloped at breakneck speed. They lost balance, they tripped, they collapsed, they get mauled in the jamboree of horses, yet the show went on.

In Buzkashi, the players are supposed to grab the carcass of goat and carry it around the field without losing it to opponents. From the starting line, they have to go round the flag on the other end of field and return to the team’s scoring line, without losing control of the carcass.

The people standing near the ropes hysterically cheered for the horses, or perhaps the riders. I also tried to make some noise without knowing who I was rooting for. Some people menacingly stared at me and my camera as if I were some extraterrestrial reptilian species holding a missile. A few minutes later, somebody comes up and mutters something in Pashtoo, confusing me for a local pathan. Kashmiris and Afghans bear striking resemblance, appearance wise. My blank expression, however, made him suspicious. Here, you can easily be labeled a foreign agent or a troublemaker, if you are not smart enough.

A lone referee, called Raees e Buzkashi, ran around the field with bated breath, and kept close eye on 60 odd brawny horse riders to make sure they don’t flout rules. But, as Douglas Bader once said, rules are for fools. They smacked each other and their horses with sheer contempt. They jostled, pushed and shoved for the possession of goat’s carcass. It was free for all.

Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, is an intriguing component of Afghan culture, which dates back 800 years when Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies conquered this region. According to a legend, people from various tribes would come on horseback, swoop on goats and cattle and whisk away. As a strategy to defend against such attacks, Buzkashi was born, and soon it caught the imagination of people here. The games would last many days as the distance between the scoring line and starting line was into kilometers. Sometimes, instead of the carcass of goat or sheep, games would be played with the carcass of someone from the enemy tribe.

In Buzkashi, the players are supposed to grab the carcass of goat and carry it around the field without losing it to opponents

Horses used for Buzkashi are classy and expensive, ranging between $2000 and $4000, most of them owned by rich Afghan warlords who maintain stables of brawny horses and a team of star riders (chapandaz). The horses are trained for a minimum of five years before they are ferried to the field. They possess special qualities, like if the rider trips and falls to ground, the horse stands there for him to get up again. Little surprise, Buzkashi games are like proxy war and organized mayhem. You can do anything just short of murdering your opponent to grab the buz (goat’s carcass) and take it across the goal line.

The carcass of goat or calf is soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the start of play. The head is chopped off, legs are cut from the knees and the internal parts are emptied. Besides Kabul, the game is popular in Balkh, Badakshan, Faryab, Jozgan, Baghlan and Mazar e Sharif. They play it on weekends, festivals like New Year and Eid, and in local fairs. The champion teams participate in big tournaments.

Buzkashi was briefly banned during the Taliban rule as they considered it ‘immoral’, but after the fall of Taliban in 2001, the game staged a strong comeback. Buzkashi finds mention in many popular books on Afghanistan, both fiction and non-fiction. It is mentioned in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Steve Berry’s Venetian Betrayal, Roland and Sabrina Michaud’s Horsemen of Afghanistan, Gino Strada’s Buskashi, Rory Stewart’s The Place in Between among others.

Some books written about Buzkashi were later adapted into films like Joseph Kessel’s 1967 novel Les Cavaliers filmed as The Horsemen in 1971. But, it was 2012 film Buzkashi Boys, set against the spectacular landscape of present-day Afghanistan and its national sport, which tells the story of two young boys – a street urchin and son of a blacksmith – who aspire to become champions of Buzkashi. The movie was nominated for Oscars in Short Film category this year.

Meanwhile, the game ended at afternoon, after five hours of rip-roaring play. All the spectators stood up and applauded the chapandaaz of both teams. The players who smacked each other on the field hugged and kissed with a typical Dari expression ‘khair bi bini’ (stay blessed). I stood there, wondering, was it love or war, but then everything is fair in both.
Much like Afghanistan itself, Buzkashi is both dangerous and fascinating. 

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