Buzkashi: Afghan Polo Played With Headless Carcasses

Photo: Po Lo

It was featured in a Rambo movie so it’s got to be tough; the preserve of people who can say “don’t push me” – and mean it. Like some unruly crossbreed of Polo and Rugby – not the most civilised games, despite their associations with blazers, shorts and spiffing colonial sorts – comes Buzkashi. Buzkashi, we salute you, delighting in your scrumptiously free-for-all sensibilities, your ferocious ideas of fair play and your all-round predilection for carnage.

Photo: Po Lo

An ancient game born of the steppes of Central Asia, Buzkashi was played as early as the 13th Century, when Genghis Khan and his Mongols were marauding their way across the continent. Buzkashi means “goat-grabbing”, and the sport may derive from the tradition of wild goats being hunted by ye olde skool warriors on horseback. Today, not much has changed, except that instead of live animals being run down, the goats or calves happily have their heads cut off first.

Photo: Po Lo

The aim for players is to pick up the decapitated 150-pound carcass from the middle of the playing field and then gallop clear of the opposing team en route to the scoring area. Sounds easy? Uh-uh. Players have license to use practically any force necessary to foil scoring attempts and snatch back the disintegrating corpse for their team. Each rider carries a whip, and it isn’t just for making their own horse giddy up; other riders and horses are fair game for a jolly good flogging too.

Photo: Po Lo

Men at the top of their game – it’s a man’s game; sorry, no ladies allowed, except on the rooftops – are called chapandaz, and only these masters even get near the coveted carcass. To be a chapandaz takes years of training, and only the toughest can take the smashed faces, broken bones and other injuries tied to a sport as insane as this. The horses also need extensive training to know when to wait for dismounted riders or get a gallop on when the carcass has been grabbed.

Photo: Stefania Zamparelli

Played everywhere from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the game has two main forms. In the simpler version, Tudabarai, the objective is to seize hold of the carcass – which is also disembowelled and soaked in cold water to toughen it up – and get away in any direction. In Qarajai, the task is much more convoluted as the carcass must be carried around a marker at one end of the field and then brought all the way back to be slung into the team’s scoring circle. Tally-ho!

Photo: Gideon Tsang

There are clear parallels between Buzkashi and Polo, both in the way they are played and the fact that “both get fairly rough” (Wikipedia). Quite. Except that Buzkashi’s idea of fairly rough slips on the side of downright brutal, and games sometimes last for days on end. But before we brand Buzkashi with the barbaric stamp, bear in mind the talent it takes to lift a dead weight mid-gallop, marvel at the romance of playing for prizes like exquisite turbans, and recall what footballs are made of. Maybe it’s better just to be bowled over by this jolly good sport.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5