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Nat Geo Photographer Tells All About Buzkashi, the Afghan Sport Involving a Headless Goat (and the Subject of an Oscar-nommed Film)

In Buzkashi Boys, an Academy Award nominee for live action short film, two boys in Kabul dream of winning fame on horseback in Afghanistan’s aggressive national sport, buzkashi, where riders compete for control of the headless body of a goat.

To learn more about this unusual sport, Pop Omnivore’s Brad Scriber talked with photographer Matthieu Paley. He has been working in central Asia for 13 years and has photographed a number of buzkashi matches, including one for the February feature article “Stranded on the Roof of the World,” about life in Afghanistan’s northeastern panhandle, the Wakhan corridor.

What are the basics of the game?

It’s a central Asian horse game where the riders, called chapandaz, fight one another for a headless goat (the equivalent of the ball in soccer). There are no rules as how to get their hands on the goat. It’s quite rough. Once a chapandaz gets it, he tries to break from the pack and ride full speed to a pre-determined goal: it could be a rock, a pole, a small hill, a circle drawn on the ground. The winner is the rider that managed to get to the goal most. A minimum amount of riders could be 10 or so, and it goes above 100 of riders for the big buzkashi.

Is there any regional difference between the version played in Kabul and the way it’s played in Wakhan?
Yes, in the Wakhan/Pamir region they play it out in the open. There [is] no determined field. It’s a much rougher, down-and-dirtier version of the Buzkashi in Kabul.
What is it like to photograph a game?
Intense!!! I usually get in the pit. I started to learn to photograph this kind of event when I went to photograph the yearly Shandur polo festival in Pakistan. These are places where, if you look like you know what you are doing, they let you run in the field, amongst the horses. So you have to have eyes everywhere so you don’t get crushed! Since there are no real boundaries, it means a lot of running. In the Pamir, it’s difficult because you are at 14,000 feet. Usually, after a while running in the field, I borrow one of the rider’s horses and ride in the game, to get image from their point of view.How long does a game last?

I’m not exactly sure. During the last one I saw, they had to stop when one of the riders broke his hip. That was in Afghanistan’s Pamir, weeks away from the nearest hospital. We gave him pain killers and he was brought, on horse back, back to his yurt.

What are the key moments in the game you look for when you set out to capture a picture? 

1) The scrum and 2) the moment a chapandaz breaks away from the pack with the goat. Usually, they do so while holding their whip in their mouth, so as to free their hands. While at full spend, they often squeeze or hold the headless goat between one of their legs and the horse.

Have you ever been injured trying to capture a buzkashi image?

No, I have been pushed around, that’s all. I have been asked countless times to leave the grounds, for my own safety, but a good picture is worth a bit of pushing, so I insisted on staying.

What are the riders like?

Tough, proud—and often bloody at the end of the game!

The film portrays riders as heroes on par with any celebrity athlete. Is that in line with what you saw?

Yes, in a way – except in the Pamir there is no way to reach a status of “celebrity.” But you gain respect if you are a good chapandaz.

Where do spectators sit?

Usually on a hill nearby – but often the horse would come full speed toward the spectators. So you have to be ready to run for your life, even as a spectator.

How do the crowds react at a match?
People cheer when a chapandaz breaks away from the pack. Also, there is often betting going on, so you can hear some spectator cheering for their chapandaz. In Pakistan, for polo, they have a band performing local music: drums and some kind of a clarinet. In the Pamir, you are three weeks round trip from a shop, so forget about flags and [musical instruments].
In Spain and Mexico, some people object to the tradition of bullfighting because of the animal cruelty involved. Do Afghans object to the use of a goat carcass?
Ah Ah! No, nothing like that there. It’s the privilege of the developed world to worry about this kind of things.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen when photographing a match?

A guy running around with balloons attached to his back carrying the head of a goat – a variation on pom pom girls?

Note: Matthieu Paley’s images can be seen on his website  and at pamirbook.com.

Comments

  1. Erika
    February 27, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Backward.

  2. sonny amin
    tajikistan
    February 24, 2013, 4:04 am

  3. Kimberly Stinson
    Ontario, Canada
    February 22, 2013, 1:38 pm

    Attending Buzkashi is amazing experience…The arena is filled with energy, skill and history. During my time in northern Afghanistan I was lucky enough to be given a front row seat…well ok, third row. But, I was still close enough to understand why the men around me covered their nose and mouth on a windless day… When 30 plus horses come charging toward the stands, then turn suddenly in front of you, the dust on the whirlwind they create just keeps coming. Despite the dust, my cameras survived..If you’re interested in seeing a little more buzkashi, I have some photos posted at http://kayjae.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/buzkashi-in-balkh/.