Alternative Spring Break: Buzkashi Edition

We spring semester language students are officially halfway through our respective Farsi, Tajik, Dari, and Uzbek language programs of study, which means – Spring Break! To kick off our week-long Spring Break/Navruz celebrations here in Dushanbe, we all celebrated by attending a good ol’ fashioned game of dead goat polo, aka, buzkashi. Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan; however it is equally popular in other Central Asian nations. Buzkashi games are held throughout the region, usually in the cooler months (November through April), however finding out when and where they’ll be held can be tricky. Thankfully, our local Resident Director keeps an ear to the ground when it comes to local Tajik happenings and was able to find us a buzkashi game to attend in the Hissar Valley area just east of Dushanbe.

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The buzkashi field

According to local legend, when the Mongols made their way through Central Asia, they brought with them shepherds and goats. In the middle of the night, wolves would often try to attack the goats, so in order to protect the flock, shepherds would mount their horses, grab the wolves by their necks, and kill them by repeatedly striking them against the jagged and mountainous Central Asian terrain. This wolf-hunt gradually turned into the game of buzkashi, now played by professional sportsmen (and very occasionally, women) instead of shepherds, and with a stuffed, headless goat carcass instead of wolves. The name buzkashi literally means “goat pulling,” and the main objective of the game is for a player on horseback to drag the goat carcass to a hole or designated area in exchange for a prize.

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Hundreds of players are on the field at any given time, and they play for hours on end, with each successful dragging of the goat resulting in a prize for the horseman (or woman). Prizes seen at our local buzkashi match in Hissar included money, appliances, and livestock, including a camel (a rare sight in Tajikistan!). Although buzkashi rules may vary from location to location, some universal tenets include:

1) players must remain on their horse at all times

2) players may whip their own horses or those of their opponents, however they may not hit each other

3) players cannot attach the goat carcass to their saddle, rather they must drag the heavy carcass themselves

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Hosing down the field mid-way through the day 

In Tajikistan, buzkashi games are typically sponsored by a wealthy benefactor and held in honor of a particular event such as a wedding or holiday. Our particular buzkashi game was being held for Navruz, the national holiday to honor the coming of spring. Attending a buzkashi match was an incredibly unique cultural experience, and by far the most interesting “Spring Break” activity I have ever participated in. Forget Cancun — Central Asian goat pulling is how we celebrated our mid-spring semester time off! Happy Spring Break, everyone!

By: Rachael McBride

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Spring 2018

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