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Last horsemen of Hunza: Buzkashi game faces final whistle

Updated May 18, 2017 05:16pm
Unlike in neighbouring Afghanistan or Central Asia, where the sport remains vibrant, Khan fears the tradition will die out in Pakistan.─AFP
Unlike in neighbouring Afghanistan or Central Asia, where the sport remains vibrant, Khan fears the tradition will die out in Pakistan.─AFP

In a remote northern valley surrounded by giant ice-capped peaks, villagers gather to watch a game of Buzkashi, an ancient equestrian sport once seen as a key test of virility that is now struggling for survival.

Baksh Dil Khan, a retired schoolteacher is saddling his horse as his wife sprinkles a pinch of flour over the animal for good luck, worried that the snowfall that blankets the Chapursan Valley will make the day's match too treacherous.

The burly, moustached 52-year-old is one of the sport's last two dozen players in this region of roughly 2000 people, which shares a border with Afghanistan to the east and the north.

Horsemen competing for a cattle carcass.─AFP
Horsemen competing for a cattle carcass.─AFP

A black goat is led out to the middle of the grounds for the players to inspect. Some pick it up before nodding their approval.

It is taken away, later returning as a headless, disembowelled carcass and is placed in a circle in the centre of the field.

This body is the prize the horseman will jostle over in the game, made up of a series of rounds in which they aim to throw it back into the circle.

Goals are met with enthusiastic shouts of 'Halal' from the crowd, a sign they believe it was legitimately scored.

Horsemen prepare for a traditional game of Buzkashi in snow covered Chapursan village of Hunza Valley.─AFP
Horsemen prepare for a traditional game of Buzkashi in snow covered Chapursan village of Hunza Valley.─AFP

Buzkashi is a way for players to show off their equestrian skills and manliness, but there are also prizes and cash to secure.

Khan has won Rs4,000, three packs of cigarettes and a cellphone.

“I almost broke my neck for these three packs of cigarettes and I am not even a smoker,” he jokes — he fell twice from his horse during the game.

Unlike in neighbouring Afghanistan or Central Asia, where the sport remains vibrant, Khan fears the tradition will die out in Pakistan.

“It is dying down and there are only half a dozen old players left, the new generation is not taking much interest in the game and we have only around a dozen young players,” he explains.

Now even finding enough horses can be a challenge as many locals have sold their steeds to buy modern comforts, says 38-year-old Taj Muhammad.

“Buzkashi will become an event of the past, a story for our children,” he muses.

In a remote northern valley surrounded by giant ice-capped peaks, villagers gather to watch a game of Buzkashi.─AFP
In a remote northern valley surrounded by giant ice-capped peaks, villagers gather to watch a game of Buzkashi.─AFP

“I will continue to play even if I am the last player, the game should at least survive till my death.”─AFP
“I will continue to play even if I am the last player, the game should at least survive till my death.”─AFP

For Aziz Ali Dad, a cultural anthropologist, the decline of the bloodsport is a sign of Pakistan's diminishing cultural ties with Central Asia, where the game originated.

In Hunza, it has long been a mainstay of the Wakhi people, who are also found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Xinjiang in China.

But Ali Dad says the lack of contact between them today means Buzkashi is “on the verge of extinction in Pakistan.” Defiant, Khan vows to ride on, even if others give up.

He insists: “I will continue to play even if I am the last player, the game should at least survive till my death.”