Asian Geographic - - South Asia -

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, how­ever, and the birth of independent states, Nowruz has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a sig­nif­i­cant re­vival. Re­con­nect­ing with their her­itage, coun­tries from Al­ba­nia to Afghanistan, Kosovo to Kaza­khstan have de­clared it a na­tional hol­i­day. You’ll also find it cel­e­brated wher­ever there are large pop­u­la­tions of Zoroas­tri­ans (also known as Par­sis) or ex­pat Ira­ni­ans, in­clud­ing in Canada, the US, and In­dia. The fes­ti­val’s name has many vari­a­tions: In Kaza­khstan,

gold­fish in it, and a sprin­kling of rose wa­ter dec­o­rate the ta­ble. An­tic­i­pa­tion builds as the fam­ily gath­ers: They can­not eat un­til the ex­act mo­ment of the spring equinox.

Nowruz is a time for fam­ily, and peo­ple take the chance to re­turn home to their vil­lages. Across Cen­tral Asia, and es­pe­cially in Kaza­khstan, it’s the one oc­ca­sion when his­toric no­madic tra­di­tions are re­vived. Felt yurts are erected in town squares, and in each one a das­tarkhan (feast­ing ta­ble) is set. Once again, there are seven dishes, in­clud­ing meats and dairy prod­ucts, but here they rep­re­sent not the plan­ets, but hu­man virtues: health, wealth, joy, suc­cess, in­tel­li­gence, agility (es­sen­tial for a horse­man on the steppe), and se­cu­rity. The mu­sic is ri­otous, and the dancers are be­decked in mag­nif­i­cent cos­tumes and jew­ellery; it re­ally is quite a spec­ta­cle.

But ar­guably the great­est ex­cite­ment is re­served for when the buzkashi games start. The most fa­mous of these is in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i Sharif, where thou­sands of spec­ta­tors gather, but smaller matches are played across the “Stans”. In Kaza­khstan the sport is called kok­par; in Ta­jik­istan it is ulak tar­tysh.

This chaotic, dan­ger­ous horse­back rugby is the more en­er­getic fore­run­ner of mod­ern polo. Teams can be as many as 100 rid­ers strong, and they are com­pet­ing for the glory of their tribe or clan. Matches have been known to last for sev­eral days, and they can be ex­cep­tion­ally ag­gres­sive, al­though eti­quette dic­tates that you should not de­lib­er­ately whip other rid­ers, or knock them from their horses. A goal is scored when a rider man­ages to throw the head­less goat car­cass (a weighty but read­ily avail­able al­ter­na­tive to a ball) into the kazan (goal). The crowds roar with de­light; and their en­ergy spurs the rid­ers on.

For 3,000 years, Nowruz has marked a new be­gin­ning. That mo­ment when the days and nights are of equal length is a fit­ting time to look back and re­mem­ber our an­ces­tors and our tra­di­tions, but it also the time to look for­ward to the year ahead. ag SO­PHIE IBBOTSON is the founder of Max­i­mum Ex­po­sure Lim­ited, and the Eurasian in­vest­ments spe­cial­ist at Glacex LLP. She is the au­thor of five Bradt Travel Guides, in­clud­ing guide­books to Ta­jik­istan and Uzbek­istan, and lec­tures reg­u­larly about Cen­tral Asian busi­ness, cul­ture, and travel.

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