ARCHERY: THE FLIGHT OF THE GASHASH

14 Jun 2020

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Mohammad Israr aims high in Nishtar Basti with his locally-made Makha equipment | Photos by the writer
Mohammad Israr aims high in Nishtar Basti with his locally-made Makha equipment | Photos by the writer

There is pin drop silence as the Makha archer concentrates hard on his target — a small white wooden board they call takai in Pushto, placed at a distance of 32 feet and a height of 12 to 13 feet. The takai is surrounded by a circular ring and secured with fresh clay. No one cheers, no one whistles. Even his teammates won’t buck up the archer, and it is like this even after he hits the bullseye, because no one in the audience is allowed to celebrate till the end of the match. If they did anything like that, the embarrassed captain of the team would have to apologise to the other team and the judges will also slap a fine as punishment on him.

The judges are chosen by each team ahead of a match. Usually, they are community elders, selected by each team of some 12 archers, of whom one happens to be a reserve player.

Makha, also known as Mokha, is another name for traditional Pashtun archery, practised mostly within the Yousafzai tribe. People from the Buner, Swabi, Mardan and Haripur districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who migrated to other cities of the country, took the sport there with them. In Karachi, this form of archery has been going on since the 1960s in the form of big and small tournaments, about which only those who are interested know.

Makha was first played in Swabi in 1879 and it is still alive and well in the area thanks to the Yousafzai tribe that has preserved it by passing it down generations.

The costly bows or leenda prepared from the horns of the markhor
The costly bows or leenda prepared from the horns of the markhor

Mohammad Qadeer, 49, says that he has been part of this kind of archery since 1982. “I learned it from my elders. I am a Yousafzai and Makha is part of our tradition,” he says.

“During a match, each archer gets four chances to hit the target in two rounds. The team which hits the most targets proceeds to the next round,” he explains.

Makha, a traditional form of Pashtun archery, would have remained confined to the remote parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had it not been for migrating Pashtuns, who took the sport to other parts of the country, and even the world

There is complete silence while the matches are under way but later there is much joy and celebration, with the playing of the drums and plenty of song and dance. “There is no big money involved in the sport, although most Makha matches now go live on Facebook and archers who hit targets receive rewards in the shape of money as a token of their appreciation and encouragement from individuals, some of whom happen to be watching from abroad,” says Qadeer.

Mohammad Israr, 33, a Makha archer from Nishtar Basti near Old Sabzi Mandi, is a lawyer by profession. He says he has been taking part in the sport for 10 years now in Karachi. “The sport has a rich history,” he says.

“The people of Buner and Swabi now settled in areas such as Hijrat Colony, Landhi, Sultanabad, Keamari, the City Railway Colony, Mohajir Camp, Ittehad Town and Banaras, all get together for Makha often. The first All Karachi Tournament of Makha was held in 2002 in Karachi’s Hijrat Colony, he says,” adding that you need a ground for it that’s at least 800 to 1,000 yards in size.

The equipment is where the main difference lies between Makha and archery as we know it. Makha has a long arrow called gashash in Pashto and a long bow called leenda. The tip of the arrow is not sharp, it is flat and round, and is known as tubray in Pashto. In Karachi, the Makha archers use locally manufactured bows and arrows, made from wood and rubber. In Swabi, Buner, Haripur and Mardan districts, the archers usually buy the bows and arrows from the Jandool area in Dir, where they use markhor horns to make them. Some also buy the bows and arrows from Marghuz in Swabi.

Locally-made arrows or gashash using kite feathers and decorative paper
Locally-made arrows or gashash using kite feathers and decorative paper

Of course, the original equipment made from the horns of the markhor is costly, but it is what is mostly used in tournaments in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The cost of a bow and arrow there ranges from about 30 to 35 thousand rupees at least. Compared to this, the bows and arrows in Karachi cost 5,000 to 6,000 rupees.

Besides the Pashtun community, they have now also been joined by rickshaw drivers, labourers, industrial workers and shopkeepers of other ethnicities who enjoy taking part in Makha.

Amir Ali, who runs a sports equipment shop in Nishtar Basti, says he has been preparing Makha equipment for the past 32 years. “We also use cheel [kite] feathers to decorate the bottom of the gashash [arrow] along with colourful crepe or glittery paper to make it more eye-catching.” The length of the arrow is seven feet and the bow is almost six feet in height.

He reveals that Pashtuns living in the United Arab Emirates also take part in Makha in their free time, which is usually over the weekends. “Most Pashtuns living in Dubai are truck drivers working in deserted areas, so they have huge space for this sport,” says Amir. “The people living in Dubai specially order Makha bows and arrows from Pakistan.

Siddiqullah, 27, a young Makha archer and captain of Kamal XI in Karachi, says that unfortunately the Pakistan government does not support this native archery with so much history and tradition. “We have many youngsters in our teams and we try to promote the sport within our young generation by sharing videos and pictures of the different events held on social media,” he adds.

He also says that, besides the Pashtun community, they have now also been joined by rickshaw drivers, labourers, industrial workers and shopkeepers of other ethnicities who enjoy taking part in Makha. “But they have only been introduced to the sport by the Pashtuns,” he says.

Amir Ahmed Shah, 34, a Makha archer from City Railway Colony, points out that, in the All Karachi Makha Tournament held recently — on March 18 at the Badar Ground at Massan Chowk in Keamari — 40 teams from different localities of the city participated. “Young Chennai is the champion team of 2020 in Karachi,” he says, laughing that he is not sure how ‘Chennai’ found its way into all this because the team belongs to Shireen Jinnah Colony. “The rickshaw drivers, labourers, industrial workers and shopkeepers who are part of that team would be in a better position to reply to that one.”

He says that Super Buner, a team from his area, City Railway Colony, is a five-time champion and Abaseen Zarobi from Keamari has been champion six times at the All Karachi Makha Tournament championship since 2002. Now, however, the contest is seeing fresh blood come into the picture.

The writer tweets @Zafar_Khan5

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 14th, 2020