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Afghanistan’s ultimate test of manhood: Polo with a carcass

MAZAR SHARIF: With their whips cracking neighing horses, an unruly scrum of riders battled in a muddy field for the headless carcass of a calf ─ this is the Afghan sport of buzkashi.

Passion, raw aggression, horsemanship and a fierce competitive instinct were on display in the country’s biggest annual tournament held in northern Mazar-i-Sharif city, set against a backdrop of the snow-peaked Hindu Kush mountains to celebrate the Persian New Year.

Afghan horsemen look on as others compete for a veal carcass during a game of buzkashi during celebrations for the Persian New Year. ─ AFPAfghan horsemen look on as others compete for a veal carcass during a game of buzkashi during celebrations for the Persian New Year. ─ AFP

A ferocious version of polo, Afghanistan’s national sport is not for the faint hearted.

The action is fast and furious as hundreds of horsemen known as chapandaz ─ dressed in colourful robes, baggy trousers and leather boots ─ wrestle over the dead animal, fighting off competitors eager to snatch it away.

Afghan horsemen compete for a veal carcass during buzkashi during celebrations for the Persian New Year. ─ AFPAfghan horsemen compete for a veal carcass during buzkashi during celebrations for the Persian New Year. ─ AFP

The rider who manages to scoop up the heavy carcass, often after sliding down perilously close to the ground, charges across the dusty pitch, swerves around a pole and drops it into a small circle to score a point.

“If you don’t whip the horse hard enough, the horse will be too slow and another chapandaz will grab the goat,” warns Gulbudin, a 61-year-old spectator.

“The sport inspires great passion.”

A horseman controls his horse. ─ AFPA horseman controls his horse. ─ AFP

An adrenalin rush swept through the audience despite the dangers as the wild contest, held in late March, raged.

The game, banned under the 1996-2001 hardline Taliban regime, is the ultimate test of the Afghan male. It is seen as a rite of passage into manhood in male-dominated Afghanistan.

Not a single woman was in sight among the players and spectators. In fact, even the horses are all male.

“All the chapandaz you see here are former mujahideen fighters,” said Abdullah Quraishi, a former buzkashi player.

Spectators watch a game of buzkashi. ─ AFPSpectators watch a game of buzkashi. ─ AFP

“They first fought against the Soviets in the 1980s before waging a fight against the Taliban. Peace has now returned to this area,” he said referring to the relatively tranquil province of Balkh, of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.

A wild winter pastime, buzkashi is believed to have originated in central Asia, reputedly around the time of 13th century emperor Genghis Khan.

Horsemen compete for a veal carcass in buzkashi. ─ AFPHorsemen compete for a veal carcass in buzkashi. ─ AFP

Legend has it that the sport was initially played by warriors using the corpse of a defeated enemy. The sport still has a proud following, primarily among northern Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks, Turkmens and Tajiks.

‘Men compete with horses’

The game has key parallels with politics in Afghanistan, a country that has seen numerous power swaps and invasions over the course of centuries.

Observers argue that a rough and tumble atmosphere and pumped up show of might are common to both.

A chapandaz with a veal carcass during buzkashi. ─ AFPA chapandaz with a veal carcass during buzkashi. ─ AFP

The sport is also seen as a symbol of prestige and power for Afghanistan’s affluent, who alone are capable of buying the best horses, paying for the best players and funding their own pitches.

Buzkashi players certainly have to be talented horsemen, as they stay balanced at high speeds and must remain onboard despite rivals trying to push them to the ground.

Players often hold their whips between their teeth, or use them to hit other competitors as much as their horses.

Horsemen clean and groom horses. ─ AFPHorsemen clean and groom horses. ─ AFP

Despite its inherent violence, the game is a welcome distraction in a country decimated by decades of war.

“Buzkashi has been a sport for (hundreds) of years,” said Haji Sharif Salahi, president of the buzkashi federation in Balkh.

A chapandaz receives money from a supporter. ─ AFPA chapandaz receives money from a supporter. ─ AFP

“Vice President General Dostum (former warlord) wants to export buzkashi to other destinations such as Dubai and the United States.”

Players of the sport compete for individual as well as team glory, but for professional riders like Hassan Pahlawan, buzkashi is a way to earn a livelihood.

A horse rolls in the dust as others are prepared to take part in a buzkashi match. ─ AFPA horse rolls in the dust as others are prepared to take part in a buzkashi match. ─ AFP

Those who manage, after the mad dash around the field, to hurl the carcass back into the circle and score a goal, usually earn cash prizes ─ sometimes thousands of dollars if the game is sponsored by a wealthy warlord.

“Many years ago at a buzkashi event organised for a wedding, the prize was $7,000 and a Toyota Prado. It was I who won it,” beamed 48-year-old Pahlawan, who claims to have won several competitions over three decades.

A chapandaz. ─ AFPA chapandaz. ─ AFP

“In buzkashi, men compete with horses. It is a sport, a passion and a way to earn a living.”

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This entry was posted on May 3, 2016 by in Sports Wallet and tagged , , .

About Author

My name is Nazim Ali , and I am the creator of www.socialwallet.wordpress.com. I am a man who is passionate about technology and News. I started with full-time site-developing on the day I established socialwallet.

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