Among the many colourful and astonishingly beautiful traditions of Nowruz are the games – Uloq Kupkari – that have come down to us from time immemorial, in which riders compete against each other and which can rightly be called the game of real men….
Show me even one person who can remain indifferent when he sees bestial speeders dashing around like arrows. And once you have been to the game of real men “Uloq kupkari”, you will never forget it, I assure you.
Nowadays it is difficult to say when and by whom the first horse races were invented. According to historians, this tradition, known among many peoples of Central Asia, is not even a thousand years old, and the first documentary records date back to the time of Genghis Khan. And it is worth noting that such games were not only for entertainment, but also a kind of aptitude test for the best warrior. To achieve victory, participants had to demonstrate qualities such as agility, strength, endurance and the ability to evade opponents. In ancient times, when internal warfare was common, all these qualities were essential for any man. But the most important thing a horseman or chavandos must show is the ability to control a horse, to become one with it.
The people of Central Asia have always had a special relationship with this amazingly beautiful and affectionate animal. According to many sources, horses have been in the service of humans since the third millennium BC.
The people of Uzbekistan not only bred horses, but also selected the best of them, knew the value of horses and were proud of them as a national treasure. Any self-respecting owner would have had to have a horse. When they brought a racehorse home, they would take a stone and tap the ground and hoof with it. This was done so that the hooves would be as strong as a stone and the animal would be connected to its master. Since then, there has been a belief that a house with horses always brings good luck and prosperity.
In Uzbek folklore we find many legends, proverbs and sayings that reflect the importance of the animal in human life. For example: “The horse is the wing of Jigit”, or “Greet your father in the morning and then the horse”. These animals are described with the most beautiful epithets in the surviving dastans about the heroes Alpomish, Gor-ogly and Intizor. In the 23rd chapter of the XI century works of the Iranian king Kaikaucus-Kabusname, useful advice is given on buying a horse: “My son, if you want to buy a horse, be careful and do not make a mistake, because a horse is like a human being”. Isn’t that where the expression “half a kingdom for a horse” comes from?
Even before Christ, the Chinese emperors sent special expeditions to what is now the Fergana Valley to fetch thoroughbred horses. However, the most famous centres of horse breeding since ancient times were in the area of the Zarafshan oasis. These are the areas where Urgut, Samarkand and Kattakurgan are located today. Karabair horses, exceptionally strong and enduring animals, were in great demand among the famous valuable breeds. And here the game of kupkari, which literally means “the work of many men”, has been popular since ancient times.
It is worth noting that the preparations for the competition are traditionally ritualised and even have their own philosophy. Usually, about ten days before the upcoming games, a council, called the maslakhat, is convened, to which local aksakals and experts are invited. The date for the games is set in the council, taking care that it does not coincide with other festivals. The reception and farewell of the guests expected from afar are planned in detail. The Bakaulbashi, the person in charge of the game, is chosen with the utmost care. He can only be a highly respected person.
The next day, after the council, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages and towns are informed about the date of the Kupkari. From that day on, the riders begin special preparations for the competition. One of the most important moments is the blessing by the tutor, the eldest man of the family or aksakal. The horses are fed with a special but limited ration.
The day before the competition, an uloq, the carcass of the animal, is prepared. Some Asians slaughter calves for this purpose, but traditionally the carcass of a goat is used. It is very important that it is a male animal. There is a belief that if this attribute of the game is made from a female goat, not only will the game take place, but disaster can happen. For example, if a rider falls off a horse.
The slaughtered animal has all its intestines removed except for the liver, heart and lungs, and its legs are cut off up to the knee joints. After these procedures, the carcass must weigh 55-60 kilograms. If the weight is not sufficient, salt, barley or maize are added to the carcass. Then the cut is sewn tightly with strong twine or a special thread from the skin. The tail is left no longer than 15-20 centimetres and a notch is made on one of the legs. All these parameters are observed to make it easier for the players to grab the carcass.
On the agreed day, the fans gather at the place where the game will take place (it should be an open space with good visibility from all sides). Between 20 and 400 participants will compete on graceful horses. A circle with a diameter of about 20 metres, the marra, is formed in the middle of the field, where the participants must pass all opponents and throw the balls.
According to ancient tradition, the competition always begins with a solemn oath to play fairly. Bakaulbashi announces all the prizes, which can be camels, carpets, valuables or money and sometimes even a car. But the most valuable prize that every participant dreams of is a good horse.
Before the actual kupkari, there is often a kokma. This is a game with the same conditions but without prizes, to warm up and whet the appetite.
Finally, the bakaulbashi announces the start of the competition and sets the first prize. And then it was there, the long-awaited moment when the fans shouted in unison and the riders spurred their horses on. Like an avalanche of different colours, they race across the field, snatching the carcass of a goat from each other. The earth flies away in clumps under the horses’ hooves and their manes blow in the wind. Finally, the first winner throws the goat into the middle of the circle. “Halol!” – shouts the Bakaulbashi, signifying that the prize has been fairly won. And the crowd erupts in cries of jubilation.
The time of internal wars is long gone, and it seems that the war tournaments have lost their meaning. But today, Uloq kupkari, which has become the heritage of the great culture and history of the Uzbek people as the game of real men, is making a comeback. It is still popular and expected at the beginning of the season, and every village boy dreams of winning the biggest prize. The game, like the Spanish bullfight or the Brazilian carnival, has become a trademark of Uzbekistan for many foreign visitors.