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 through it and one day in the year when the road is closed. On Easter Sunday, all traffic here halts to give way to the ancient traditional game of lelo.
Predecessor of rugby
Lelo (meaning “throw” or “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 in the field in the central part of Shukhuti between two brooks. On Easter Sunday, men from the upper and the lower village fight for a 16-kilogram ball called a burti. The goal of the game is to carry the leather ball to the corresponding side of the village. The ball is thrown to the crowd by a priest from the carefully measured center between the two brooks, and for several hours the approximately 150-meter field becomes a lelo battlefield. The highway that runs across the field is closed and nothing can stop the battle for the burti – neither fences, nor gardens, nor road signs.
The victory brings honor 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 exactly when 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 Christianity arrived. Lelo is believed to be the predecessor of rugby, a sport now popular across the modern world.
16 kilograms of honor
On Easter Sunday morning, Shukhuti enjoys the calm before the storm. Men from both parts of the village are in their camps discussing strategies for the upcoming battle or spending their last quiet 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 is made on the eve of the lelo match. This honor is bestowed on the single local family that has stayed true to the trade of shoemaking from ancestral times. On this 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 neighbors 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, wishing victory to the players and strength to ball.
Pope Saba is at the center of the ceremony. For 13 years, the former Greco-Roman wrestler, who has participated in the competition for lelo victory 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, Robinson Kobalava, a taxi driver, lifts a wine bowl and urges people 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 center of all of Georgia. The tradition of our ancestors to fight for the honor of lelo still lives, and we have to respect this heritage.”
After a couple of hours of toasts, jokes, and funny recollections, the ritual of stuffing the ball – as well as the 50-liter wine bottle sitting nearby – comes to an end.
Once the ball has been 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 for 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 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 covered with food and carafes of wine appears in front of us. 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 us that he is not afraid of the contest. But he persistently recommends that we memorize 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 past games. According to Kobalava, the men are rivals only during the game of lelo. He also stresses one rigorous rule – no hitting. Those 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 accompanied by several men and a guide armed with a hunting rifle. The crowd comes to a boiling point and gunshots announce the beginning of the match. The burti is thrown to the players.
A desperate fight
Once the burti 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 the men from the opposing part of the village.
Some men ruthlessly fight for the ball, and some watch the situation from higher ground to prevent the opposing team from secretly smuggling the ball out of the field.
One of the players wearing a T-shirt with the words “Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia” is bombarded with patriotic ridicule. But he promptly retorts that he is only “wearing the tee so it gets torn.” Indeed, the clothes of the 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 safety beyond the chaos.
Honor after death
Two hours later, the lelo burti finally makes its way across the brook of the lower village. With the fight still raging on, cheers and salutes start to fill 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 a lelo victory. Therefore, the atmosphere here is 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 a teenager who tragically died at the beginning of this year. After the huge crowd expresses their sympathy to the deceased relatives, toasts are said and several hundred liters of wine begin to evaporate in the crowd.
Many older balls can be seen on other graves – some have been placed there quite recently and still bear wine stains, while others are almost rotten but continue to sit honorably 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.