National Games in Kazakhstan
Every nation has its own national games, and Kazakhstan is no exception. Kazakh national games are an integral part of Kazakh culture and combine echoes of work and spiritual activities. So, every game has a distinctive ethnocultural experience, which can be interesting to both children and adults. Some national games go back to deep history, were held in ancient times, and have survived to this day. This article gives examples of the most popular equestrian, intellectual, and children's games.
Equestrian and Sports-military Games Complex
The pastoral nomadic culture that developed in the Eurasian steppes around the first millennium B.C. played a huge role in the development of Central Asian cultures, which also included Kazakhstan, and managed to last for several millennia. The role of cattle breeding is especially reflected in the cultural heritage of Kazakhs: in beliefs, traditions, customs, fairy tales, musical heritage, funeral rites, and even in games. The Kazakh culture distinguishes four main types of domesticated animals, among which the horse took a special place due to the nomadic way of life of the people. In addition to horseback riding skills, nomads also paid attention to physical training and strategic thinking. Human military skills also played a major role.
“Kokpar” is one of the popular national games of Kazakhstan. It can also be called a peculiar horseracing “soccer” of nomads. This game was widespread in ancient times not only among Kazakhs but also among Altaians (kok-boru), Kyrgyz (ulak-tartysh), Bashkirs (kuk-bure), and many other peoples of Asia. The game used to be played when returning from hunting.
All riders gather in the field. At a distance of fifty or sixty paces, a goat carcass is thrown. The game is that the rider must seize the goat carcass and not let his enemy take it. The one who finally captures the carcass and throws it into the enemy's “kazan” (gate) is the winner. Initially, the game was quite violent, as players could use physical force against each other, but nowadays this is forbidden. The game of kokpar has two varieties: the first, where dzhigits (guys) from two different auls (dada-tartys) compete, and the second, where dzhigits from one aul (zhalpy-tartys) compete. In the first type of kokpar, the winner is the aul whose dzhigit won a goat, while in the second one each man fights for himself. When you talk about it, a fairly simple picture unfolds, but in fact, the game requires prior preparation: kokpar requires good physical performance and skillful horsemanship. Almost always spectators gather to watch the game.
The “Audaryspak” is also sporting in nature and is one of the most spectacular equestrian games. This game has analogs as “Oodarysh” and “Enish” among the Kyrgyz.
Briefly, the game can be described as “horse fighting”. The game used to be aimed at training warriors. The game involves two people, each of whom must have good strength, agility, and endurance, as well as the ability to stay in the saddle. In the game “audaryspak” the rules are relatively simple to understand: you have to pull your opponent by the arms from the horse. The two riders start at the start five hundred meters from each other. Don't forget that the horse's performance and a well-fitting saddle also play a big role.
“Kume alu” is a game where the main goal is to collect as many bags of coins scattered to the finish line as possible on horseback. Silver bars used to be used in the game. You could say it's like horse racing with an interesting addition.
Everyone knows that a child sees in an adult and in his environment an example of behavior. There is also a children's version of this game, but it is without horses. Children have to stand along the start line. Bags are also scattered across the playing field to the finish line, and from start to finish children have to imitate horse riders, collecting prizes.
“Tymak knockdown” is an interesting game where you have to have good intuition. A pole is inserted into the ground, which should not be higher than the participant. A man's winter headdress — tymak — is put on the pole.
This headdress somewhat resembles a hat with earflaps, usually made of sheepskin or fur. The tymak has a special cut: four fur strips were sewn to the main top part of the headdress. There is also a back part - wide and long, which is designed to protect the neck and part of the back from the cold. In ancient times, you could determine by tymak which juz and clan the owner was from.
After the pole and tymak are in place, the participant is shown the place where the pole with the tymak is placed. Then, the participant is blindfolded, given a whip in his hands, and spun around on the spot. The player on horseback has to knock the tymak off the pole blindfolded. The player has a total of three attempts. If he has not knocked down the tymak, he must, at the presenter's command, perform his task: to perform a song or improvisation.
“Baiga” refers to the oldest equestrian games. The Kyrgyz call it “baige” and it is considered one of the most popular among many Turkic peoples.
Baiga is a race over a long distance. There are different types of baiga, depending on the distance raced: tai-baiga, kunan-baiga, donen-baiga and at-baigaThai-baiga is performed on two-year-old horses, kunan-baiga on three-year-old horses at a distance of one and a half to two kilometers, and donen-baiga on four-year-old horses at 2.5 to 5 kilometers (1.5-3.1 mi). At-baiga is the race for the adult horses, the distance is from five to eight kilometers. Nowadays, baiga is held at racecourses.
Baiga was held at various festivals, as well as other games. Winners usually received prizes, sometimes depending on the occupation of the person: wrestlers got camels covered with carpets, and akyns (Kazakh poets and singers-improvisers) got chapan (a special Kazakh headdress) and horses. Sometimes, the winners of the races were given a prize of up to a hundred horses. However, the winner often shared it with friends and others.
“Zhamby atu” is a widespread sport-military game of marksmanship among the Turkic-speaking peoples. It was called “altyn kabak” by the Uzbeks, “kabak” by the Tajiks, and “zhamby atysh” or “zhamby atmay” by the Kyrgyz. All variants of the game have slight differences in the rules, but one similarity can be noticed in the game of each nation. The game could be played both on horseback and on foot. In the game, there is a prize, which is suspended from a thin rope of horsehair, strap, pole, or vein. The prize was set at a certain height, but the conditions changed with the value of the prize: the more valuable the prize, the harder it was to get. In Kazakhstan, the distance is usually about 150 or 160 meters (492.1-524.9 ft). The prize is suspended at a height of four to six meters. In the version of the game where the participant is a rider, there were several people who had to knock down the prize at a gallop. In a game where no horses are used, the one who knocked down the prize with fewer attempts wins.
This game was very popular in pre-revolutionary Kazakhstan, but its origin has not been exactly established yet. Because of the large number of games similar to “zhamby atu”, it is more likely that historically the game has Mongolian roots and originated approximately in the period from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 14th century, during the Mongolian Yuan dynasty. During the Soviet Union, the popularity of the game and the state of horseplay, in general, began to decline, but with the independence of the country, the game began to gain momentum again. Since 2014, tournaments and national championships on zhamby atu have been held in Kazakhstan, but the rules of the game within the events have changed and modernized slightly. The “Zhamby Atu” Federation was also formed in Kazakhstan, and an international tournament on the game was held in Nur-Sultan (Astana), in which eleven countries participated.
“Kyz kuu” can be referred to as the games that used to accompany family and tribal celebrations. The name of this interesting game literally translates as “catch up with the girl”. The game is quite popular up to now, and carries a traditional character, and is also played on horseback. Analogs of the game exist throughout Central Asia. For example, in Kyrgyzstan it is called “kyz kuumay”, and in Bashkiria “kyz kyuyu”.
According to the old custom, this game was held between a boy and a girl (usually before their engagement party), where the young man had to prove his skill at horsemanship. This tradition combines playfulness and, at the same time, the gravity of the romance of those times. The game is like the embodiment of a framework of high feelings in a difficult age when one of your decisive factors for survival and success would prove to be exceptional strength, agility, and sharpness of reactions. In such a time, only after a steely proof of strength and assertion of self-confidence, could one obtain the desired outlet of delicate and fragile feelings.
According to the rules, the girl and the boy on horseback are at the start. The girl must stand 12-15 meters (39.37-49.21 ft) in front of the boy and with a signal the game begins. At a distance of 400-500 meters (1312.34-1640.42 ft), a flag is set, which marks the turning point. The main goal of the guy is to catch up with the girl. If the young man manages to catch up with her, his reward could be a hug and a kiss on the gallop. If he can't catch up with the girl, he has to run away from her. However, the girl's prize will already be the opportunity to whip the young man with a kamcha (a whip). This game is an interesting entertaining spectacle for spectators. Sometimes the skill of the game is evaluated on a five-point system. The appraisal takes into account three factors: the skill of the horse riding, the elegance of the performance, and the sharpness of the gallop. For the sake of maintaining the beauty of the spectacular tradition, participants usually dress in one-man, colorful costumes.
“Togyz kumalak” is a board game for quick calculations. It is usually played with a wooden playing board that has nine main notches for balls. Each of the notches has a different name. There are also two extra tiles called “kazan” where you put your opponent's recaptured marbles. Each player is given a total of 81 marbles. Four arithmetic operations are used for the game. You may notice that the number “9” is often found in the foundations of the game — it was a sacred number among the Mongols and many nomadic peoples. Shepherds used to play this game by creating holes in the ground. Therefore, it was also called “chabans algebra”, where the chaban was an analog of the shepherd.
The game was widespread among the nomads. The Kyrgyz called it “toguz korgool”. Togyz kumalak belongs to the family of “mankala” games (which means “to move” in Arabic), which also includes “wari” game resembling by the playing field togyz kumalak and coming from Akan culture that lived on the territory of the modern Republic of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. In addition to “wari”, there is also “kalah”, which comes from Africa. “Kalah” is almost identical to togyz kumalak.
Kazakh game culture has a place for children's games as well. Of course, these games did not carry with them the harshest attitude compared to adult games, but they could also develop various qualities of children such as resourcefulness, quick thinking, agility, intuition, and more.
“Asyks” carries the title of a symbol of childhood. Almost everyone had at least one “asyk” as a child. “Asyk” is a knee bone in a joint of sheep, rams, or cattle. Asyks are used for games and divination throughout Central Asia, Buryatia, and Mongolia. The game of asyks has a counterpart even in Russia — the game of “babka”. The only difference is that the Russian counterpart mainly used only bones from cattle. First, the bones were boiled in saltwater. After that, the bones were dyed in different colors, which depended on the price of the bones. The cheapest (and the smallest) were not dyed. Among all asyks, there was the biggest, which was called “saka”. It was put on the line and served as a prize to be knocked out. There was also a special asyk, which was used to beat out other asyks. The asyks are played on an even ground, on which a line is drawn. Along this line, asks are placed at a certain distance, and the game begins. The main goal is to beat out other people's asyks using your own.
Nowadays, asyk tournaments are held in schools at various events, or at sporting events, but this does not mean that the game of asyks is intended only for special days — anyone can play it, the main thing is to have the right set of asyks.
“Oramal” is one of the children's physical games. The word “oramal” translates as “shawl” from the Kazakh language. At least five or six children should participate in the game. According to the rules of the game among the children is one leader makes a knot from a shawl and gives it to one of the participants. Then, the participants stand around the leader and begin to lead a round dance. Then, the leader must shout the word “stop”, after which the participants run away in different directions, and the leader must catch the person with the shawl. The “chosen one” may pass the handkerchief to participants other than the leader. The participant caught with the handkerchief must sing a song, dance, or tell a poem at the request of the participants. After doing that, he becomes the leader. Many inventive children can change the rules in their own way, making interesting additions to the game under the enthusiastic hubbub of other children.
“Ak suek” translates as “white bone”. This is a children's game with fairly simple rules, developing observation, cunning, and resourcefulness. The game has several participants and one leader. The more people, the more interesting. Participants must stand in a line facing the leader. The leader takes a bone (any other object can be used), and with a song or counting rhyme, throws the bone behind the row. The main thing is that the participants do not turn around and do not keep their eyes on the bone. After the leader's permission, the main task of each participant is to find the bone and stealthily bring it to the leader. It seems like a very simple task, but it is not as easy as it seems. If children notice a bone, they chase after the player. By lightly striking the player with the bone on the shoulder, they can take the bone away and run to the leader. The player who finds and brings the bone can make a wish to the whole group, which must then fulfill it.
Competitions and Tournaments
Many equestrian games have taken on the status of sports games. At the moment there are various sports competitions in different parts of Kazakhstan. Competitions for some games are held within Asia, such as the championships in “audaryspak”. Hippodromes or in the steppe are the main places where competitions are held. And for such games as “togyz kumalak” a sports federation was formed and masterclasses, lessons and competitions are held.
Kyrgyzstan also had a hand in hosting competitions in various national games, becoming the first country to host the World Nomad Games in 2014. The last Games were held in 2018, involving 37 sports. The Games include competitions in asyks (ordo), kokpar (kok bory) and togyz kumalak (toguz korgool), and many other ethnic sports and games. Turkey has taken over the hosting of the IV World Nomad Games in 2020.
Tournaments and competitions on national games in Kazakhstan are sometimes broadcast on domestic channels, but most national games can be seen in the villages, especially in spring, during the Nauryz holiday.
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