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 kokbüra, or 'grey wolf.'
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.
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.
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 mêlée 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."
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 Shaghâwal. 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."
For further information on Buzkashi see
All text and
photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002
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