Sunday, November 04, 2012

Buzkashi - An Awe Inspiring Spectacle of Brutality and Tea Sets

What do you get when 100 stallions carrying men sporting Russian tank helmets and a dead goat collide in Central Asia? A sport, of course! Buzkashi: one of the most brutal sports still played today.

Buzkashi, from the Tajik words buz (goat) and kashi (to pull), is not for the faint hearted, nor is it for fans who expect safety while spectating, at least not as it is played here in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan - a breathtaking landscape nestled between the Pamir and the Trans Allay mountain ranges along the southern border with Kyrgyzstan.  In this region, buzkashi is a notoriously dangerous game – for riders and spectators alike.

While buzkashi is unlike any other sport, there are vague similarities to rugby or polo and involves independent riders, called chovandoz in Tajikistan, fiercely playing tug-of-war with a headless goat carcass, while on horseback. The objective of the game is to toss the carcass into the center of the target. In our area, the target is a remarkably small car tire.

The playing field is an open, most often snowy field, without boundaries. Up to a couple hundred horses could be involved in a game; they stampede at high speeds and change course unpredictably. Because the riders frequently drop the reigns as they battle for the carcass, the speed and wildly shifting directions of the game could be likened to an Indy 500 race in which the drivers do not actually take hold of the steering wheel - a formula for utter mayhem and hazard. Collisions are inevitable, especially when the play heads directly into the crowds, or when photographing the game from the center of the playing field as I often would do. In one game of chicken with a speeding stallion I was unequivocally the sore loser. I consider that incident one of a multitude of rites-of-passage that I endured over the years while participating in this wild game.

Buzkashi is known for its lack of rules. The few rules that exist revolve around scoring. Each round of play is won when the chovandoz throws the goat halol (fair and square) into the center of the tire, earning the rider a prize. Each successful toss can be rewarded by any one of a variety of household goods such as tin buckets, soup bowls, washbasins, or tea sets. I marvel at the brutality and passion of play for the prize of a tea set. Tajiks do love their tea!

Occasionally someone in the crowd will offer a more valuable prize, notably increasing the aggressiveness of the game. One hundred Tajik Somonis (roughly USD$20), a large carpet, TV set, or parabolic antenna can make a single round continue for over an hour, creating an enthusiastic frenzy amid both chovandoz and spectators. The crowd frequently numbers over 500 - all male - and generates a tremendous uproar with their shouting and cheering!

The players in buzkashi are remarkably adept horsemen with virtually unmatched equestrian skills. Leveraging their weight in the stirrups, the players hang off the side of their horses or dangle over the necks of these massive mounts, pulling at either end of the carcass while moving at breakneck speeds. Broken bones, bloody hands, and lacerated faces are not uncommon.

It is precisely the skill of these riders that captivated, awed, and inspired me to, week after wintry week, risk making my way to the playing field under extremely hazardous conditions. Depending on the weather, the trip could take between two to four hours, although only 40 miles away. In our region the game is only played during the winter months, when there is no agricultural work pending. During one year's agonizingly bitter winter I endured sub-freezing temperatures, deeply rutted iced roads, avalanches, and landslides in order to attend and participate every weekend. And of course, once on the playing field there was always the likelihood of sustaining injuries in order to observe, photograph, and ride in the game; all of which I did. I considered it an honor to take so intimate a part in this ancient and brutal sport alongside these skilled horsemen. In my case, it was a unique honor because I was the sole female in attendance in this more religiously and culturally conservative area of Tajikistan.

Although the game of buzkashi is indeed brutal, and the chovandoz appear barbaric to some, this is in contrast to the real character and culture of Tajiks. Chovandoz are unquestionably as kind and generous off the playing field as they are fierce and aggressive on it. Tajik people are a guest-loving culture and the people of the Rasht Valley, including the chovandoz, uphold this reputation with a warm and royal treatment of guests. It is a reflection of their hearty spirit in this remote region that, in spite of living in harsh conditions and playing extreme sports, they offer extraordinarily gracious hospitality. They extended their respect to me - even welcomed me to play their sport, and although my skill was marginal by comparison, occasionally I would even win a tea set.

All photos taken by me with the exception of the photos taken of me that were taken by Roger Horton and Mulobek Vazirov.

I invite you to check out this link to a beautiful movie about the lives of a few of the chovandoz in Tajikistan and the ancient sport in which they participate.  Continue to check for dates that the film may play at a theater near you.