Across northern Afghanistan, as well as in neighboring Central Asian states, this winter sport has been an enduring pastime for centuries. The object of the game is for a member of two competing teams to pick up the carcass of a decapitated calf or goat from the ground, carry it around a flag, and return it to a circle in front of the judges.
It is not surprising that a game that prizes courage, horsemanship, and brute strength would be one of the most popular forms of public entertainment. The ancient game of bozkashi is part of Afghan life and is offered as a primer to that end. It has little to do with politics but much to do with the spirit of the place. Bozkashi is a game that dates itself into Afghan antiquity. The name bozkushi, literally translated means "goat killing" suggest it was derived from hunting mountain goats by champions on horseback.
During Taliban rule, many of the top players fled their villages or took part in the fighting. Others left the country. But now the pros are trickling back. Teams from local villages play each other. Sometimes matches are held to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a son; other times tournaments take place in which thousands of horsemen participate.
Bozkashi is sport reduced to its simplest form, with no contrived side-shows or complicated rules. And, as many things are done in Afghanistan, the seeming chaos of a buzkashi match actually follows a deliberate system that is not always obvious to the foreign observer. Today the rider (or team) who is able to pitch a dead calf across a goal line first wins. The game may last as long as a week and is as free-wheeling as the Afghan spirit.Legend has it bozkashi was played for the first time in the Oxus basin. The turkik peoples and others who migrated from the steppes to Afghanistan domisticated the horse and used to as a mobile weapons platform for combat. Two types of horses are indigenous to Afghanistan. The "qataghanI" is a sturdy pony known for strength and endurance. The other is larger and is raised in the stepps of Faryab and Balkh. Both breeds are used in bozkushi. Only male stud horses are used in the game. Bozkashi horses require special training in order to be successful in the game. Should the rider be thrown or dismount, the horse waits. A trained horse will gallop with terrific speed as soon as the horseman snatches the careas of a calf in order to gain an edge in the game. The horses are said to enjoy the game as much as the riders. The price of trained hors was between Afs. 20,000 and Afs. 100,000 in pre-jihad Afghanis. If one was to pay in a more valuable international currency, they could be for between $1000 and $2000 Bozkashi horses are fed oats at regular intervals. A few days prior to bozkushi, the trainer keeps the horse hungry for part of the day and rides it daily a fairly long distance. This is meant to soften the horse and make it slightly lean to avoid busting when under excessive strains. Horsemen call their animals after their natural colour. For instance, a grey horse is called "t'Aragh"; an ash blond horse is referred to as "samand"; a red horse as "jayran"; and a white one as "qezel" or "boze". Horsemanship in Afghanistan was customary during the Vedic times. The people in the Oxus basin domisticated the horse in order to defend their homeland against the marauding cavalry of enemy tribes while herding their flocks. When horsemen practiced in ancient times, their relatives watched them. At night, the horsemen critiqued each other and corrected errors on the next day's ride. When fighting on horseback with archery fell into disuse, the horse come to be viewed as a means of transport in the first place and a vehidle to play bozkushi in the second. Wrestling matches always accompy bozkushI because usually a hand to hand fight followed a cavalary campaign. A successful horseman had to be strong and adept enough to beat his opponents on the ground as well. Wrestling is considered as an ancient game like bozkushi and it is practiced on sunny days in the Spring. It is very popular among the people in northern Afghanistan where every move made by a popular wrestler causes such a great excitement among the crowds. Young men wear "chapan" (cloak-like garments) and wind shorter turbans around their waists. They wrestle bare-headed. No foul play is allowed according to unwritten rules of the fames. Biting is considered very bad form. Afghans remember the stories of famous horses, horsemen and great battles in which the latter displayed their mettle as adept horsemen and wrestlers. Bozkushi is regarded as an imitation of ancient batles. The peoples of Balkh, Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Samangan, Jozjan, and Faryab are known to be good at bozkashi. It is is played on special occasions such as weddings, the Eids, the new year day and at local carnivals. At fairs every horseback rider can participate in the game. It is a free for all where riders help their friends by whipping competitor's horses so they are unable to make the pitch. It is a melee which is richly enjoyed. Only champions of bozkushi participate in important matches. They are taken very seriously and there is much less "horse play." Bozkashi horsemen wear thick hats, quilted dresses, long boots and wind strong scarves around their waists. In the Pamirs, bozkushi games are played only in summer to celebrate weddings but elsewhere, there is no set time. Bozkushi is played on a level field covered with snow. To spite the cold and snow, everyone turns out to watch the match. They get very excited when the calf is brought to the pitch and fights between spectators are not uncommon. The women watch from roof-tops. Traditionally, a calf is beheaded, the legs are cut off at the knee and its entrails are removed. The carcase of the calf is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough to withstand the tugging that takes place. When there is no calf available, a goat is used instead. Winners are awarded prizes of "chapan", turbans, cash or rifles. The riders may not own the horses they ride in competition. Most of the bozkushi horses belong to men who can afford to buy them and hire trainers. Usually, the owner of the horseman also awards the horseman a prize, as his horse gains fame in victory. An adept horseman can generally get any horse he wants to use in an important bozkushi match. According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcase to his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf. Likewise, tripping an opponent by using the rope is forbidden. Bozkashi continues unitl a team is annonunced the winner. At the end of the game, a horse race is arranged which is known as 'paiga' . Horses used in paiga races are different from those meant for bozkushI. Younger boys are not allowed to participate in such races because race horses are not saddled. Some ride their mounts bare-back and others use a thin saddle blanket. Horsemen are frequently carried away and in their excitement they will bump, hit and jar opponents. When they return, they are usually bruised or have a broken limb. Sometimes, they choose a site for pitch near a river and a few horsemen conspire to drown their opponents. The Afghans play for very high stakes and take the game very seriously. It is not uncommon for riders to continue in the game with cracked ribs, broken limbs and various head injuries.
At the start of a round, the master riders, known as chapandaz, bunch up in a tangle of men and horses. Players in the midst of the fray stoop down from their mounts - whip in mouth - and try to grab the carcass, which can weigh up to 60kg. Suddenly, one rider breaks from the crowd, dragging the calf as he gallops across the field with his rivals in hot pursuit. Opposing riders use their whips to urge on their horses and to hit the rider with the carcass in order to steal it.
Admission is free to the couple of thousand men and boys who have come to cheer on the riders. Often the bystanders become unwilling participants in the game, as the riders charge headlong toward the sidelines, causing the crowd to scatter. During the match, chapandaz fall over his horse, but jumps back on his mount and continues may the pursuit. For the owners of the horses, possessing buzkashi champions is a matter of prestige. For the chapandaz, too, glory comes before money.