05 May 2013 08:00
While the rest of Georgia was celebrating Easter around dinner table on May 5th, one village in western Georgia marked the occasion with a rugby-like scramble that effectively blocked traffic for hours on the country's East-West national highway.
The traditional Georgian sport known as lelo ("goal" or "try" in Georgian), has no rules, no time-outs, and no limit to the number of people (men only) who can play. The "field" is the entire village of Shukhuti, a hamlet of about 2,000 in the western region of Guria. Two creeks, about 150 meters apart, mark the goal lines for two teams. The teams are made up of residents from the upper and lower halves of the village. The aim is simple: whichever side is the first to carry a 16-kilogram leather ball back to their creek wins the game.
Victory means dedicating the leather ball to a deceased villager and placing it on his grave after the match -- a reflection of Georgian Orthodox Church traditions of visiting cemeteries on Easter to commemorate loved ones. Lelo balls in various stages of decomposition can be seen on graves in both of Shukhuti's cemeteries.
In a Georgian village, Easter is celebrated with a Lelo fight When most of the Orthodox Christians join their families at the Easter table, one Georgian village celebrates the holiday in a cloud of dust raised by a crowd of fighting men. Shukhuti village is an inconspicuous location in Guria, a poor region in Western Georgia famous for its cultural heritage. The village is notable for two things – a highway running across the settlement and one day in a year when the road is closed. On Easter Sunday, all traffic here halts to give way to the ancient traditional game called Lelo. Predecessor of rugby Lelo (meaning “throw, try” in Georgian) has no referee. The reason is very plain – the game has no rules, time limits or player restrictions to enforce. The ritual match takes place on the field in central part of Shukhuti village between two brooks. On Easter Sunday, men from the upper and the lower village fight for a 16 kilogram ball called Burti. The goal of the game is to carry the honourable leather ball to the corresponding side of the village. The ball is thrown to the crowd by a priest in the carefully measured centre between the two brooks, and for several hours the approximately 150 metre field becomes a Lelobattlefield. The highway that runs across the field is closed and nothing can stop the fighting press – neither fences, nor gardens or road signs. The victory brings honour to the winning part of the village, while the ball is solemnly carried by the champions across the village and put on the grave of the last deceased player. Nobody knows the exact time when people began playing Lelo. There are many versions based on different sources, but a number of pagan rituals involved in the game suggest that it was played in Georgia long before the coming of Christianity. Lelo is believed to be the predecessor of the rugby, a sport now popular across the modern world. 16 kilograms of honour On the Easter Sunday morning, Shukhuti village is the calm before the storm. Men from both parts of the village are in their camps discussing strategies of the upcoming battle or spending their last quite hours of the day with their families. But soon the silence is broken as the solemn and heady ceremony of stuffing the leather ball begins. The Burti ball is made on the eve of the Lelo. The honour is bestowed on the single local family, which has stayed true to the trade of shoemaking from the ancestral times. On the festive morning, the empty ball is welcomed with toasts in the yard of the shoemaker and the ceremony of stuffing the ball with earth, sand and wine begins. It will continue well into the afternoon, but first the crowd of neighbours and priests drink toasts from the still empty leather ball using it as a vessel. Everyone in the yard must drink from the Lelo burti ball wishing victory to the players and strength to ball. Pope Saba is at the centre of the ceremony. For 13 years, the former Greco-Roman wrestler, who has fought for the Lelo honour for three decades himself, has been endowed with the upstanding privilege to bless the ball and throw it to the players. One of the old-timers of the game, the taxi driver Robinson Kobalava lifts a wine bowl and urges to drink for the tradition of Lelo: “Our village is in no way exceptional. Vehicles pass through here at high speed. But today we are the centre of the entire Georgia. The tradition of our ancestors to fight for the honour of Lelo still lives and we have to respect this heritage.” After a couple of hours of toasts, jokes and funny acquaintances, the ritual of stuffing the ball – as well as the 50 litre wine bottle sitting nearby – comes to an end. Once the ball is stuffed, it undergoes yet another weighing. An archaic scale shows almost 18 kilograms, but Kobalava assures that “once the wine evaporates, it will be exactly 16 kilograms”. A crowd of participants and spectators walk from the house of the shoemaker down the highway to the church where the ball will be consecrated. It is carried by pope Saba, but he is willing to give everyone a feel of what it’s like to catch such a ball. The ones who do catch it are hailed with applause, while the ones who trip or drop the ball are showered with laughter. The drivers stuck on the road are not mad – they also get an opportunity to touch and lift the heavy ball. The noisy crowd finally reaches the church where the ball is sanctified and left to rest for a couple of hours. Gamishvit ar vtamashob Georgy from the upper Shukhuti invites us to the yard of his house near the church to explain the history and tradition of Lelo. Once we settle in the shade, a Georgian table appears in front of us covered with food and carafes of wine. According to Georgy, wine is obligatory before the game. Toasts are said to the luck and health of the players, and to the continuing ancestral tradition. Georgy, 35, first played the game as a teenager, and assures that he is not afraid of the contest. But he persistently recommends us to memorise one Georgian phrase – Gamishvit ar vtamashob (“Let me go, I am not playing”). According to him, these words are our only escape once we are caught in the middle of the game. Escorting the ball with a shotgun The men from the lower and upper village begin flocking to the field some time before the game to chat and share their memories of the past games. According to Kobalava, the men are rivals only during the game of Lelo. He also stresses one rigorous rule of honour – no hitting. The ones who get too excited and go too far are promptly separated and placated. Each year, the match begins exactly at 5 pm. There are no limits to the length of the match – it can range from two to eight hours. Soon applause and shouting signal the appearance of pope Saba with the Burti ball accompanied by several men and a guide armed with a hunting rifle. The crowd comes to the boiling point and the gunshots announce the beginning of the match. The Burti is thrown to the players. A desperate fight Once the Burti ball is in the game, the force of several hundred people explodes. Like a whirlwind, the players move in unpredictable directions destroying everything in their path. Lelo is a masculine game, but women also get to play their part. They do not fight for the ball, but try to help their teams by pinching and distracting men from the opposing part of the village. Some men ruthlessly fight for the ball, and some watch the situation from a higher ground to prevent the opposing team from secretly smuggling the ball out of the field. One of the players wearing a T-shirt saying “Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia” is lumbered with patriotic ridicule. But he promptly retorts that he is only “wearing the tee so it gets torn”. Indeed, clothes of men soon turn to rags, and footwear is sent flying over the crowd. The cloud of dust keeps moving back and forth between the two brooks for a couple of hours.If anyone falls on the ground, the nearby players put their hands in the air – a signal for the game to slow down. But from the outside, the rhythm of the match is relentless, while the injured are carried to the safety beyond the chaos. Honour after death Two hours later the Lelo burti finally makes its way across the brook of the lower village. With fight still raging on, cheers and salutes start filling the air. The ball is carried to the place where it was born – the shoemaker’s porch – to be displayed to the crowd. It had been four years since the lower village last secured the Lelo victory therefore the atmosphere here is extremely jubilant. Young players proudly carry the ball down the streets towards the cemetery shouting “Long live Lower Shukhuti! Long live Lelo!” Once in the cemetery, the ball is placed on the grave of the player who had died in the game of 2008. Toasts are said and several hundred litres of wine begin to evaporate in the crowd. Many older balls can be seen on other graves – some had been placed there quite recently and still bear wine stains, some are almost rotten, but continue to sit honourably atop the graves. There is a saying that better to see once than to hear a hundred times. Lelo is hard to understand until you see it with your own eyes.