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BUZKASHI

 

 

Buzkashi (literally 'pull the goat' - Oghlak Tartish, Kok-boru or Ulak Tartysh in Kyrgyz) is a game played throughout Central Asia - in the Pamirs it was regularly played in Murghab district, although the tradition has virtually died out mainly because of lack of horses, many of which were slaughtered during the humanitarian crisis that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The object of the game is to pick up and carry a goat's carcass to a designated point. The other riders try to take possession of the carcass.

Francis Henry Skrine described it as follows in his book The Heart of Asia published in London in 1899: "To Englishmen an exhibition of the national game of baigha is more interesting. It is a scramble by mounted players for the carcass of a goat. When all are ready for the fray, the umpire beheads the creature and throws its bleeding body into the arena. Then follows a scrimmage which reminds one of Rugby football. The goat's remains become the centre of a dense mass of men and horses locked in a desperate struggle, in which, wonderful to relate, players are rarely unseated, and still more seldom do the animals injure each other. The object of each is to monopolise the Bokharan substitute for a ball, and carry it far from the scene of action, outstripping all competitors."

In 2007 I had the privilege of advising and accompanying a team from the first German TV channel ARD who were making a film on the Pamirs. At their insistence a Buzkashi was organised at Akjilga in Murghab district, although not without some difficulty in finding sufficient horsemen. This may have been the last occasion on which the game was played in the Pamirs. (See the photos below from the 2007 event at Akjilga.)

The following narrative is from Turkistan - Notes of a Journey in Russian Turkistan, Kokand, Bukhara and Kuldja by Eugene Schuyler, US Consul General in St. Petersburg, published in New York and London in 1876.

"My friends at Samarkand urged me to visit Urgut - twenty miles off in the mountains. Accordingly we made up a little party, and attended by a number of jigits, we started from Samarkand one bright afternoon. We drove through lanes made fragrant by the odour of caper plants, and by the spicy scent of the yellow-flowered jidda, or wild olive, and after we had got clear of the gardens and fully into the plain, I found that a surprise had been prepared for me in the shape of a baiga, the great national sport of Central Asia, known also by the name of kokbra, or 'grey wolf.'

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports


In an open field along the side of the road fifty horsemen were waiting, one of whom had a dead kid slung from his saddle bow. As we came along this man rode up to us and asked if we would like to see the sport. Of course we willingly assented, and we started off with everybody else in full pursuit. The object of the game was to succeed in bearing the kid away from its possessor and in bringing it up to me as the judge of the contest.

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports


Away they went, through canals and over the plains, up and down hill, sometimes forwards sometimes backwards, the possessor of the kid skilfully dodging and holding on by main force to the animal with which he was charged. Men often approached him, but it was seldom that they could catch hold of the kid, and still more seldom that they could retain the hold sufficiently long to make a struggle. At one place, in order to get rid of his pursuers, Ish Jan - for such I believe was his name - had to plunge into a pond, or rather the enlargement of a canal, where the water was much deeper and swifter than he had thought, and soon there were a dozen men there struggling and plunging, all up to the necks of their horses in water. All got out without accident and the kid was still safe, but just as Ish Jan was going up the bank one of the men, who had not plunged into the water and who was lying in wait, quickly pulled the now slippery animal away from him and brought it in triumph to my carriage, for which of course I had to give him a tenga and pass the animal on to another.

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports


The next time they went almost out of sight across the gravelly plain and rapidly returned with another as the victor. The sport lost much by not being played, as it should be, on a grassy steppe where the vista would be large enough to take in the whole position and with a throng of enthusiastic spectators on horseback, but even as it was it was extremely exciting. I saw it again on the occasion of a Kirghiz feast, though at a long distance. Fully a hundred men were surging backwards and forwards over a broad hillside, their horses so close together that it seemed as if some of them must get smothered. Sometimes half a dozen separated from the rest, a struggle followed, one bearing the kid dashed off in triumph, when all rushed at him and the mle began again, reminding me then of nothing so much as of a good game of foot-ball.

Since then I have seen polo played, a game of a similar nature. When I first saw it, Hurlingham, the royal guests, the ladies and the officers all faded away, and I was again on the steppes of Asia."

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports kyrgyz woman



The extract below is from Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar by Robert Shaw, John Murray, London 1871, pp. 164-166.

"They are wonderfully fond of games which require skilled horsemen. At one of the villages the Yoozbashee showed me a sport which they call 'ooghlak.' The headless body of a goat is thrown on the ground, and everyone tries to pick it up without leaving the saddle. The press is tremendous, as with one foot and one hand on the saddle they stretch down the other hand to the ground. Presently one succeeds, and is off; swinging himself back into the saddle as he goes. He is chased by the rest, doubling and turning to avoid them. At last, another and another gets a hold of the goat. The first man throws his leg over the body to tighten his hold, and away they go across country till their horses diverge and all but one loose their grasp. He is again caught, but throws the goat on to his opposite side. The others wrestle with him as they gallop three or four abreast, the outermost riders almost leaving their horses as they stretch their whole bodies across their neighbours. It is beautiful to see the perfection and grace with which they ride. Their seat is looser than ours in appearance, and, for some reason that I cannot explain, reminds me of an accomplished swimmer floating without apparent effort in the water - his body bending and giving to the Waves. While playing at 'ooghlak' they seem utterly forgetful of their horses. Their hands are seldom on the reins, and banks and ditches are jumped while they are half out of the saddle grappling with one another. The game is not without danger. A man who has the goat, if hard pushed, will throw it in front of his pursuers, tripping up their horses as they gallop. A Kirghiz of our party broke his stirrup-leather as he was stretching over, and came to the ground in a heap. His head was cut open by the horse's sharp shoe as he passed over him. My friend Moollah Shereef and his fiery dun pony turned a complete summersault. The pony pitched on his head and turned over, his neck remaining doubled up under him. I thought it was broken. His master was shot several feet in front, and the whole cavalcade apparently galloped over them, not stopping their game the least. The pony and the moollah were picked up, and, having shaken themselves, the latter remounted and went at it again with fresh ardour. The Yoozbashee's stable-boys were almost the best riders of all.

Another day we were met by two officers sent to welcome me by the Shaghwal. As they approached they and their attendants were playing at ooghlak. After salutations and compliments, the goat was produced again, and now I tried my hand at the game for the first time. I managed pretty creditably, but I fancy they did not play their best against me. I kept the goat safe under my leg when once I got him, but I could not manage to pick him off the ground. English saddles are quite unadapted to such tricks; but even when I mounted one of the Yoozbashee's spare horses (they were always led along with us in their stable clothing), with the advantage of a high saddle-peak to hold on by with the left hand, I could not reach the ground and keep my balance so as to regain my seat; Even the Toorks occasionally slip off if mounted on a tall horse. As for the rest, one has to trust a great deal to one's steed in galloping across rough ground, tugging with both hands at the goat; but the Toorkee horses seldom make a mistake.

In the middle of this horse-play the Yoozbashee would suddenly stop, and dismount. Taking a pocket compass out, he would mark the direction of the Kibla, and presently a solemn row of true believers would be kneeling behind him, following him through the prostrations of the Mussulman prayer. There being no water at hand in the desert parts, they went through all the motions of washing in dumb show, pressing their open palm on the sand instead of filling its hollow with water each time."

pamirs murghab buzkashi celebration national day horse sports


For further information on Buzkashi see here

 

 


All text and photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002


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