This article was written by David. In 2013, for about a month and a half, David lived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. I asked him to write an article about a strange game he described to me, which is traditional in that area and has to do with men on horses fighting over a dead sheep. I found it strange and intriguing, hope you will too!
Early last year I was living in the capital of the remote and rarely visited country of Tajikistan. I saw many sights in Tajikistan that charmed my eyes that would never in one hundred years happen in any western style country. One of these sights is witnessing the famous and revered game of Buzkashi being played. Before I explain more about the game, let me introduce you to how I came to watch this game for the first time.
It was during the period of Nowruz, the celebration of the Islamic new year, and I had a week free from the duties of my job. My two Tajik friends (or guides in this case) made sure during this time of Nowruz I would get no free time from being educated about anything pertaining to the Tajik culture or nation. One day, my friends ushered me into their micro van and said in rough English that we were, “going someplace”. When I asked what it is we were to see one of the friends just looked at me as if he were about to say something then turned away with a grin and just pointed to get in. I knew my friends well enough that I wasn’t in any harm (except for the dangerous road conditions, nobody can protect anyone from that) and judging by the look on their faces, I was going to be seeing a sight they knew I would find peculiar.
We went over a dirt road which followed the foothills running west of Dushanbe. For such a dirt road that tossed and flung us all over the cabin of the van it was widely surprising how heavy the traffic was for the road. After a couple hours driving marked by a couple bruises from bumping about, we turn into the foothills and followed a long and windy road taking us to some hillside village.
There were exponentially more cars parked lining the road than the houses they were in front of. After parking the van and getting out, we found it troublesome to walk as the ground was still soft from the thaw of the winter snow. Walking upwards along what seemed to be the main strip of the village, more and more people seemed to be walking in the same direction as us. The street became a large crowd, all of us going in one direction with vendors hawking non (national bread), sunflower seeds and various pastries and snacks I have no idea to neither their names or contents.
It was when we arrived at the top of the road did it open up into a small muddy valley. I could not yet see the bottom of the valley, but I could see a multitude of people sitting on the hillsides looking almost like grazing cattle in a field. The place was swarming with people and I had no idea why!
After I myself got onto one of the hillsides I could see this was a crude arena of some sort and below we were to be watching some game!
Buzkashi, The Dead Sheep Game
I didn’t find out the name or all the rules of this game until I left Tajikistan but from what I know now I was watching Buzkashi, and a large version of it too! Looking down upon the game I saw only this; hundreds of men on horses whipping each other fiercely with their horse switch while they battled to grab a carcass of a dirtified and dead sheep then drag it into a small circle area which would designate them the winner of the round. There were more riders with horses than I could count playing and from what my friends told me they had come from all over the “stans” to play at this event. Kyrguz, Afghan, Uzbek, Turkmen and Kazakh all were battling it out against each other for a prize of a used car and 1,000 US dollars. It was unbelievable the ferocity these men took to procure the masticated sheep for themselves. The sheep had been sacrificed that day in the name of the event and promptly gutted and stuffed with dirt. This was not a light object to be dragging horseback while bombarded by numerous switches reigning down upon a riders back. Many times did the sheep switch from the hands of one riders or another. It also seemed that there was no time limit to the rounds as some were short lived and others dragged into close stalemates. After a few rounds with the winners being Afghan, Tajik, or Uzbek I understood the game partially and cheered for the riders who made off with the dead sheep. This game made such sports like American football and rugby look soft and tame as these riders wore no protection and pulled the sheep from one another with no teammates to help their back not become mince meat from the unstoppable flays it received.
A sport it was, and the players more like warriors. I hope anyone who happens to visit this exotic region has a chance to watch for themselves Buzkashi: the dead sheep game.