Buzkashi: Like Polo, But With A Headless Goat Buzkashi is a centuries-old game in Afghanistan in which men on horses compete to pick up the carcass of a dead calf, carry it across a field, and drop it in a designated circle.

Buzkashi: Like Polo, But With A Headless Goat

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Since the fall of the Taliban, sports like soccer and cricket have become more popular in Afghanistan. After all, for years, the Taliban had discouraged people from playing all sports. But throughout Afghanistan's history, there's one sport that's been revered more than others, a centuries old game called buzkashi. It originated among the Turkic people of Central Asia.

And we should warn you, it can be a bit gruesome. Buzkashi, which translates to goat grabbing is Afghanistan's version of polo, except this game is usually played on a muddy field in winter. And as the name suggests, the ball is replaced by the carcass of a goat or a calf. NPR's Sean Carberry traveled to Sherberghan in northern Afghanistan to attend a buzkashi match. And here's what he saw.


SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: It feels a bit like a rodeo. Men with bullhorns are welcoming crowd trickling into the stadium. The stadium itself is about the size of a football field. The sandy, muddy pitch is is surrounded by a white wall. There's a covered seating area protecting the spectators from the steady, cold rain. Perfect weather because it keeps the horses from overheating during the two-hour match. Live musicians sound check as about 300 male spectators take their seats.

This buzkashi matche is sponsored by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. He's an Uzbek warlord, who's also currently a vice presidential candidate. Dostum's a passionate buzkashi fan and is putting up the several thousand dollars in prize money in today's match.


CARBERRY: Some 70 competitors, chapandazers as they're called, dress in what could be described as casual Genghis Khan Couture, lineup their horses on the playing field. The officials carry out the limp carcass of a dead calf, decapitated and dehooved. They place it into a straw-lined circle. The object of the game is to pick up the calf, carry it across the field around the flag, and then drop it back in the circle.


CARBERRY: The match begins, and a couple of dozen chapandazes immediately crowd around the calf. It looks like an equine mosh pit. Horses rear. There's pushing and shoving, though, anything rougher than that is technically against the rules. While some try to pick up the calf, others hover nearby, chatting with each other and waiting to steal the so-called game ball from whoever picks it up.


CARBERRY: It takes 5 to 10 minutes before a chapandaz is able to lean all the way to the ground while still balancing on his horse, pick up the calf, cinch it under his leg and ride out of the muddy scrum. He races around the flag as a number of others give chase, but they aren't able to prevent him from returning the flopping carcass to the circle. This round is won by Najibullah, a champion chapandaz.

He and his older brother, Haji Jahangir, both built like brick walls have a mere monopoly on buzkashi matches in Afghanistan. They've won tens of thousands of dollars in prize money and are celebrities in the country. Najibullah trots to the grandstand and the announcer hands him a couple of hundred dollars.


CARBERRY: He gallops by and flashes a smile as he stuffs the cash in his pocket and returns to the field. The typical two-hour match might have only 5 to 10 successful scores.

SABER MOUSAZADAH: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: One of the passionate spectators is 34-year-old mechanic Saber Mousazadah.

MOUSAZADAH: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: Buzkashi is very popular northern Afghanistan, especially among Uzbek people. I'm Hazara, but I can tell you that the best players are Uzbeks, and that they also have the best horses. During the decades of war, Afghanistan lost its capacity to raise champion buzkashi horses so they import them from Uzbekistan and other neighboring countries.


CARBERRY: As the match progresses, Jahangir and Najibullah each score several times, as do a couple of other riders. And each time, they head to the grandstand to receive a few hundred dollars in prize money. Traditionally, though, the real money and prestige is in the final round.


CARBERRY: After nearly two hours of grueling play, the announcer says it's time for the $3,500 final round. While that's nothing compared to U.S. sports, that's 10 times the typical monthly wage here. Steam rises off the sweaty horses as the fatigued men and beasts battle one last time to pick up the calf.


CARBERRY: Eventually, a rider emerges, gallops off around the flag and successfully drops the mangled calf into the circle. Again, it's Najibullah.


CARBERRY: He receives a giant wad of U.S. bills and rides off. There's no ceremony, no formal presentation, but that's of no matter to the enthralled fans.

KHESRAW KAIHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: 25-year-old businessman Khesraw Kaihan says buzkashi is not just a game. It's a part of the fabric of Afghan life. This game is not a piece of cake for everyone to play. The players are strong and smart. Buzkashi gives me courage, he says. I must exercise and get strong to reach my goals like buzkashi players. Sean Carberry, NPR News.

MARTIN: There are some amazing photographs of that buzkashi game. Go to our website, NPR.org, to check them out.

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