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.