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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Nomads

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Silk Road Stories

From Buzkashi to Polo

The game we call polo has long been associated with horsemanship along the Silk Road. Its origins have been attributed to Central Asia, to Baltistan (a region where Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and Tibet meet), and to Iran. It was introduced to China in the 7th century, supposedly by the son of the last Sasanian emperor of Iran, who took up life at the Tang court. The Chinese then transmitted polo, which they called "hit ball," to Korea and Japan. Polo horses were sent from Khotan, Turkestan, and Iran for polo-playing Chinese aristocrats, both women and men.

The game has a number of variations. The polo played today in the United States comes from the British game that itself developed from buzkashi, a competition that 19th-century British soldiers saw in the area of colonial India that is today in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Buzkashi, a raucous display of competitive horsemanship, is still played today. It involves two teams of variable number—typically from 10 to 50 players—and variable degrees of organization. The field might be a large meadow with an area or a pit designated as the goal. A goat or sheep carcass serves as the ball. Horsemen from one side must scoop up the carcass, ride around a pole or marker, reverse course, and drop the carcass into the goal. Players are extraordinarily skillful, using a number of riding maneuvers and a repertoire of hand-held armaments to either aid or attack the carcass-carrier. The game is a combination of celebration, exercise, and a public display of riding prowess. The riding skills are precisely those needed to attack caravans, raid towns, and fight military campaigns. Afghans celebrating the fall of the Taliban played buzkashi.

The British colonial soldiers introduced buzkashi to Victorian England; it was adapted and later adopted by Americans. British polo is also played today among army units and clubs in India and Pakistan and by Pakistanis and Indians living in the United States. It is identified in the public mind as a sophisticated and perhaps aristocratic game but one that involves a great deal of skill, some danger, and much bravado.

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Click images to enlarge and view captions

  • American Connection: Polo is an ancient game that originated in Asia and by the Middle Ages was played in one form or another across the Silk Road. American polo is related to the game British soldiers saw on the northwest frontier of 19th-century colonial India, present-day Pakistan.