About the Author: Jessica Simon serves in the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She previously served at U.S. Embassy Kabul. Daniel J. Wilkinson, who serves as official photographer in the Public Affairs Section at U.S. Embassy Kabul, provided the video.
Uniquely Afghan, Buzkashi, as it is played today, reflects the boldness and fierce competitive spirit of the Afghan people. Buzkashi, which literally translates as “goat grabbing,” dates to Afghan antiquity and is the country's national sport -- banned under the Taliban. Historians debate Buzkashi's origins, but most agree that it was likely introduced by the Mongols hundreds of years ago as an imitation of ancient battles. It is played on special occasions such as weddings, Eid, new year's day, and at local carnivals. Traditional uniforms consist of thick hats, quilted dresses, long boots and strong scarves wound around the waist.
In Buzkashi, the headless carcass of either a goat or calf is placed in the center of a circle and surrounded by players from two opposing teams who are mounted on horseback. The teams vie to carry the carcass around corner posts and back into the center circle in which it was first placed, all the while maneuvering their horses away from the whips of the opposing side. The game may last as long as a week and is as free-wheeling as the Afghan spirit. Though it may not sound that challening from this description, in reality, only the most masterful players -- Chapandaz -- can get close to the carcass. The competition is fierce, and the winner of a match receives prizes donated by sponsors, which range from money to turbans and clothes. The Chapandaz are legendary figures and national sports heroes. Experience is essential, and many followers of the game maintain the better Chapandaz must be at least forty years old.
While the Afghan Olympic Federation has established official rules for Buzkashi, they are strictly observed only for contests in Kabul. In the Northern provinces, Buzkashi is seldom played according to "official" rules. There is no limitation on the size or type of the field, and as many as 500 riders may participate in one game. Variations of the game include a free-for-all version in which riders compete individually, and "darya-yi-Buzkashi," which is played in the middle of a river or stream. There are, however, two rules which apply to every Buzkashi contest: A rider may never hit an opponent intentionally with his whip, and he may never deliberately knock an opponent off his horse.
It's not only the players that go through years of training. Buzkashi horses also require special training in order to be successful in the game, and many people say that the horse is actually more important than the rider. A well-trained horse knows to wait, should his rider be thrown or dismounts, knows not to trample fallen riders, knows how to push its way into the fray, to remain still as its rider reaches down to grab the carcass, but also to gallop with terrific speed as soon as the carcass is safely in hand, in order to edge out the competition.
Two breeds from northern Afghanistan, both known for their endurance and speed, are used for today's game: Tartar and Habash. The Tartar comes primarily from the provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz, Samangan, Takhar, and Badakhshan. Small but swift and sturdy, these are the horses that so impressed Alexander the Great. The Habash is the great horse of the Turkistan plains, the vast expanse of arid foothills stretching from Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh Province to Maimana in Faryab Province that nurtures this breed. A popular Afghan saying, "better a poor rider on a good horse than a good rider on a poor horse," demonstrates the respect riders give their equine counterparts.