A Georgian Carnival Of Brawls and Bruises

A huge herd of men heaves their way through the village, smashing their way through fences, gardens and orchards, scaling walls and scrabbling across muddy ditches. Men scream out in pain and passionate determination, grappling and grunting as they battle for control of the heavy leather ball, which is the focus of the traditional Georgian ritual called Lelo Burti.

Lelo is played only once a year and only in the village of Shukhuti in western Georgia. Men from the northern and southern halves of the village compete against each other in a spectacularly chaotic, no-holds-barred struggle to get the ball to a river on the other half’s side. Whichever side reaches the river first is the winner.

It’s a carnival of barely restrained aggression, fueled by gallons of homemade Georgian wine. The morning before the game, players gather to drink toasts from the empty ball, before it is packed tight with 16 kilograms of soil and then topped up with even more wine.

The local Orthodox priest, who blesses the ball before each year’s match begins, told me that while Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, the authorities wanted to ban Lelo because of its links to the church.

“They wanted to destroy people’s traditions, and by doing that, they wanted to destroy their national identity. The Communists hated Jesus Christ and our Georgian traditions,” said the genial Father Saba, whose burly physique attests to his past as a Greco-

Roman wrestler.

Lelo is still played in exactly the same way as it has been for generations. It’s seen in Georgia as a predecessor to rugby, and injuries are worn with pride.

“There’s no fear in this game!” yelled one bruised and mud-spattered player as he threw down his ripped shirt and charged back into the fray.

After the match ended, the ball was taken to the cemetery and placed as a tribute on the grave of a young man who died during the past year. Throughout the graveyard, moldering balls from earlier contests lie next to headstones.

Then the men set up a wooden table in the churchyard. A plentiful supply of food and wine was laid out, and the villagers came together to celebrate, with Saba leading the festivities.

After a day of ferocious brawling, the first toast, as so often in Georgia, was for peace.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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