Watching Buzkashi in Afghanistan. Buzkashi is not a sport for the faint-hearted. Think of polo on horses, but the ball is dead goat, missing its head. Men on horses compete fiercely to grab the goat off the ground (or from a competitor) and race to the goal while fending off other players. In Farsi, Buzkashi translate to goat pulling and this seems to be a very apt name. This tradition dates back over 1000 years and is mostly played in Central Asia as Turkic people migrated from the plains of Mongolia sharing their sport.
I had seen buzkashi played once before at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the sport is known as kok boru. The kok boru I witnessed on the shore of Issyk-Kul Lake was formal and regulated. Multiple teams from the region enthusiastically competed in a match overseen by a referee. The athleticism and energy displayed was intense.
My second opportunity to watch buzkashi was in Mazari Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan. Mazari Sharif is well known for the Shrine of Hazrat Ali bathed in azure tile but Mazari Sharif is also known as a great place to watch buzkashi.
I traveled to Afghanistan with Untamed Borders and they sponsored my trip. Untamed Borders specializes in bringing travelers to challenging locations like Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. Check out their agendas and trips.
I was in Mazari Sharif in early winter, and the skies were leaden and dreary. Buzkashi is usually only played in the cooler weather. It was a Friday, and many Muslims attend the noon day prayer at the mosque. Under the Taliban buzkashi was banned, it was considered harem, forbidden. Today in Afghanistan buzkashi has returned. After prayer, men and boys, began to congregate in a large expanse. This is where buzkashi played.
I strolled onto the dirt grounds. The match had not started. People were roaming around, some boys gathered around a portable foosball table, a truly international sport.
Competitors and their steeds milled around, conversing with friends, preparing for the match.
On the far end of the field was a hobbled seating area. Men and boy gathered about, jockeying for position. There were no seats. And even better, entry was free.
Near the main seating area, a white circle had been drawn in the dirt. This is the are where the match would begin. The dead goat (the ball) would be placed here. On the far end of the field was a flag. The horseman needs to grab the goat and then spring on his horse carrying the goat, circle the flag, and then return to the white circle and place the goat back in its place.
The ball as mentioned is a goat and it is prepared before the match. The head is decapacitated as well as the hooves, then it is disemboweled, and finally stitched up. The goat can weigh 50 or 70 pounds. Imagine the strength and athleticism needed to dead lift the goat, while sitting on a horse, leaning over almost upside down, and all the time fighting off your competitors.
For animal lovers, this sport might seem brutal or savage. The goat does not go to waste, as it is served as a meal after the match. And, to put it in perspective, many balls used today in sports are made from leather.
The referee drops the goat in the circle and a scrum forms around the goat. Competitors struggle against each other while endeavoring to grasp the goat.
Once, the goat is secured, the horseman sprints to the far side of the field often accompanied by competitors who attempt to steal the goat.
The crowd is engaged and enthusiastic. There is even an announcer.
Buzkashi is considered to be the national sport of Afghanistan. And these competitors are the professional athletes of the day. Champion buzkashi athletes can make multiples of the average monthly salary. And these matches are sponsored by the rich and powerful as a display of their wealth and prestige.
The horses are also athletes in their own right. The horses cost up to $50,000 each. I stood next to some of the horses and was dwarfed by their height and strength. The Buzkashi competitors partner up with the owners of the horses. The horses are trained rigorously and often have careers that stretch to 20 years.