THE TRADITIONAL OGLAK TARTIS AMONG THE KIRGHIZ OF THE PAMIRS
[First published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic
Society of Great Britain & Ireland. 1985]
In the course of research into one of the earliest
known versions of the Central Asian dastan or ornate oral
history, Alpamysh, this writer paid a visit in the summer of
1984 to the Kirghiz of the Pamirs. This group, now settled
in the Eastern part of Asia Minor under the auspices of the
Turkish government, fled from their home before the
occupying Soviet in 1979. Since then, a number of papers on
the Kirghiz have appeared, most of which have expressed
concern over whether the members of this particular tribe
would be able to retain their customs, traditions and
ceremonies. Although the primary purpose of the trip was to
compile a glossary of Kirghiz terms not found in any
available dictionary, it became clear that it would also
provide an unusual opportunity to observe other aspects of
As a house guest of the tribal elder Rahman Kul Kutlu
Khan, the author was privileged to participate in two
weddings held in the course of his stay. Beside the games,
the obligatory "Slow Walk" of the groom was duly performed.
Two of his close friends held the groom's arms high up and
outstretched, and the trio crossed the village. In this
way, taking one step approximately every three seconds, it
took several minutes to cover the path from the groom's
house to the bride's, a distance of several hundred yards.
For three nights, the singing of the Kirghiz ir
could be heard for miles while the members of the tribe
surrounded the bards in a circle listening to the recitation
The wedding ceremonies, in full native regalia,
included the usual Central Asian feast reminiscent of the
description found in The Book of Dede Korkut dastan,
"Mountains of meat devoured." Neither were the
accompanying time honored games neglected. For the Kirghiz
of Van, the Ashik oyunu does not seem to require a
special event for regular participation by young and old
alike. Since Ashik can be played either by teams or
individuals, it was a common sight to witness boys taking
part alongside their elders.
However, Oghlak Tartish is a game reserved for the
able-bodied young men who must field formidably agile and
hardy horses. Literally, the name means "Contest for the
Goat," actually the carcass thereof. Usually a young goat
is killed, then its abdominal organs are removed and
replaced with wet sand to weigh it.
The contest has very few rules and is deceptively
simple. The starting point is a circle, the diameter of
which is generally proportional to the number of
participants, varying from ten to one hundred feet.
As soon as the Aksakal judges give the starting
signal, the goat is picked up by one of the players; the
object is to bring it back to the starting point. This is
easier said than done for each horseman plays for himself.
The game has all the elements of mounted combat, although
the only weapon allowed is nothing more dangerous that a
whip, which may, however, have lead reinforced tips. The
horseman in possession of the goat tries to outmaneouvre all
others in order to bring it back to the circle. The rest
oppose him fiercely and reach for the goat, seeking a hold
and tugging. Hence the tartish. The new possessor
attempts to ward off the pursuers by clutching the goat
between his thigh and his saddle.
During the course of the game some unlikely, unforeseen
and ad hoc alliances may be formed among the combatants.
These alliances are usually short-lived, dissolving in the
rapid fluidity of the competition as quickly as they are
established. Thus brothers may be vying for the honor of
becoming the new champion, while old rivals can be seen
aiding each other. Al this fosters fast-thinking teamwork
in fighting the enemy that is absolutely vital under actual
combat conditions, which the game very realistically
Historically, the contest of Oghlak Tartish was an
occasion to assess the courage and skill of the new
generation; as well as re-test the durability of the older
one. It also served as a means by which the millennia-old
horsemanship skills were transferred from the master to the
novices. Lessons are learned and the need for breeding
better and more durable horses is reinforced, since the game
is also a showplace of equine beauty and excellence.
The Kirghiz of Van, however, who had migrated to the
Turkish Republic only a year before, had not yet had enough
time to build up their horse-herds. Therefore, in order to
allow greater participation --and not to deprive the young
men of the experience-- the Oghlak Tartish was played in a
much simplified form, that is to say, on foot. This variant
did not seem to dilute the seriousness of purpose or change
the rules in any appreciable way.
Upon observing this development, it was a natural step
to question the Kirghiz elders on the historical versions of
the game. It is known that, in order to make the contest
even more trying, at times a young calf would be used, if
one was available. However, when Rahman Kul referred in
passing to the game as Kok Boru, a more detailed
investigation became necessary.
Kok Boru was the wolf's head symbol adorning the
standards of the early Turkish Khanates of Central Asia, and
it also repeatedly appears in the Oghuz Khan dastan, as
well as its derivatives. It commands respect and fear
simultaneously, appearing variously as a guide, ancestor and
cherished symbol. But serving as a replacement for Oghlak?
Rahman Kul's answer was straightforward:
What better way to remind ourselves that one must
learn from the masters? Kok Boru was the ruler of
the Central Asian bozkir. He has survived since
the beginning of time. He was always free and
remained free, unburdened by any pettiness around
him. He fought for his freedom when necessary.
Therefore, our ancestors used a Kok Boru to play
this game and affixed his name to it in
One of the earliest printed versions of Alpamysh, the
great Central Asian dastan, supports Rahman Kul in this
respect. The contest is referred to as Kok Boru. There
seems no escape from the conclusion that in ancient times it
was the body of the ancestral totem over which the
contestants struggled. But at the same time, each
contestant considered himself to be a Kok Boru.
1. See Nazif Shahrani, The Kirghiz of Wakhi of
2. Remy Dor has published extensively on this topic. For
example, see his Si tu me dis chante! chante!....:
pour servir a la connaissance et l'etude de la tradition
orale des Kirghiz du Pamir Afghan (Paris, 1981).
3. A. Hatto has been producing a series of studies on the
Kirghiz epic since the late 1960s. Among his other works,
see his Memorial Feast for Kokotoy Khan (Oxford,
4. Cf. the description in the story of "Boghach Khan, Son of
Dirse Khan:" "He heaped up meat in hillocks, he milked
lakes of kumiss." See The Book of Dede Korkut,
by G. L. Lewis (Penguin, 1974). Kumiss, being fermented
mare's milk, was not yet available in the new Kirghiz home.
5. See H. Altay, "Kazak Turklerinde Asik Kemigi ve Asik
Oyunlari" Turk Dunyasi Arastirmalari Subat 1984 for
description of the game.
6. Among Persian and Tajik speaking populations of Central
Asia, this game is also known as Bozkashi.
7. Some romantic traveller who have ventured into Central
Asia also recorded the contest, perhaps not realizing its
solemn purpose and traditions.
8. Aksakal: literally white beards, the respected elders of
the tribe; while the Karasakal (blackbeards) are the mature
middle generation who are above the bala (children) group.
The latter includes the youngsters still in puberty.
9. In fact, in the heat of the game, the goat is often
pulled apart. It is a normal occurrence to stop the contest
momentarily to replace the totally obliterated goat.
10. Though this appears to be a development later in time.
11. "Sky Wolf," or Blue-White Wolf.
12. For example, see Z. V. Togan, Oguz Destani (Istanbul,
1972). This work contains a useful bibliography of various
13. The version of Alpamysh to which I refer is
being translated into English by the present writer.