Pakistan – Dominating Malang Palawan’s carpet shop in congested Shoba Bazaar is a portrait of his father on horseback – an accomplished player of Buzkashi, the strenuous equestrian sport of Afghanistan.
Palawan is proud that, before him, his father Haji Tokhta and grandfather Ganja Palawan were chapandaz or players of Buzkashi – a game which involves jostling to get at the carcass of a goat and then manhandling it into a delineated circle while on horseback.
Six-feet tall and athletically built, Palawan was 22 when he himself first began playing Buzkashi in the Jauzjan province of his native Afghanistan. Now 40 he still plays the game when he can as a refugee in this frontier town of Pakistan. There was, he recalls, a time when he earned a living as a professional chapandaz, patronized by rich aficionados as the tradition used to be among the fierce, feudal Afghan tribes.
Until 1973, when the last Afghan King Zahi Shah was deposed and for some years afterwards, Buzkashi tournaments were a regular feature of Afghan life and preceded events such as weddings. But times have changed. Palawan fled Afghanistan due to civil war to set up his carpet shop here but does what he can to keep the tradition of buzkashi alive in this alien land – along with Afghan culinary art, culture and tradition.
Afghans lay claim to being the original people who tamed wild horses, and historical records testify to their exceptional riding skills which halted Alexander the Great’s advance into Afghanistan for two years. Afghan horsemen were, from those days, famous for swooping down on unsuspecting enemies and bodily whisking them away – a feat which has its peacetime version in buzkashi with a headless calf taking the place of human prey.
Besides the strength required of both horse and rider, the chapandaz has to perform a feat of balancing while pulling, pushing, snatching and carrying away the calf to deposit it in the circle.
The sport has many traditions but no hard and fast rules which allowed for drastic improvisations – and this has come in handy for those involved in keeping the game alive in Pakistan. Haji Abdul Bari, a Buzkashi promoter and a chapandaz says that where the game is played with 12 players on each opposing side, in Pakistan the teams have been reduced by half for lack of space and suitable animals. The weight of the decapitated calf – for which the teams jostle for posession – has also been reduced from 60 kilograms to half that weight says Bari, also owner of a carpet business in Peshawar.
The moving spirit behind the revival of the game, Bari has spent money and time persuading chapandaz, living as refugees in different parts of Pakistan’s North West Frontier province (NWFP) to play the game – even the watered-down version. Bari has gone to the extent of buying up horses put to work pulling carriages by Afghan refugees. ”I could not bear to see the precious horses pulling carts in the streets,” Bari said.
But worse has happened to the 3 million odd Afghans who streamed into NWFP and other border provinces of Pakistan to escape the civil war – they have had to sell drugs and their women sex to make a living.
Still, the hapless Afghans managed to level a plot of land a ground inside the Khurasan Refugee Camp, on the outskirts of Peshawar for a few rounds of their beloved sport and before long Buzkashi was back in business.
Before long the Pakistan government, anxious to maintain good relations with its turbulent neighbor, helped the refugees organize a few tournaments and recently military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf was treated to a match during a visit here.
”The game will strengthen ties between the two countries, besides becoming a source of revenue for us,” said NWFP minister for sports and culture, Imtiaz Hussain Gillani.
Possessive of their traditions and customs, Buzkashi being a major part of this, the Afghans were delighted.
”What if we have been displaced? Our blood has not changed, and Buzkashi is in our blood,” Palawan said.