In a Georgian village, Easter hunts involve bruises, honor, and the fight over a 35-lb. ball
Communists failed to ban the traditional game, which is part rugby and part running of the bulls.
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Because of the religious association with the game, communist officials tried to prohibit lelo during Soviet times. Locals outflanked authorities, however, by moving the date to May 1, the Soviet worker's holiday.Skip to next paragraph
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In the early 1980s, Georgia's top communist official again banned lelo and deployed police to forestall any matches. The villagers, though, weren't willing to give up the tradition.
After the ban, a village elder, Konstantin Chaidze, walked through the village with a large sack over his shoulders, presumably returning from the bazaar. When stopped by the police, he complained of being tired and dropped the sack, which held the ball. At that instant, scores of men came out of the woodwork and began to play.
The only time lelo was not played was in 1989, after the April 9 massacre in Tbilisi, when Soviet troops broke up a pro-independence rally by firing into the crowd and killing 20 people.
"All the people came out to play when the priest dropped the ball," says Mr. Koblava, "but nobody touched it. The priest took the ball to Tbilisi and donated it to Khasreti church, to the memory of those who were killed."
The lelo ball functions as a tribute to the deceased – there is no other reward for winning. Prior to the game, each side chooses to whom they will dedicate the ball. It can be the latest person to have died in the village, or the youngest, or the most tragic recent passing of a resident. The two village cemeteries have weather-worn lelo balls on various graves.
Honor in bruises?
Pure physical force generally determines the outcome, as there are no plays in this massive free-for-all and very few techniques, apart from the use of deceit.
One year, the losing side managed to drop the ball in a well to bide time. Another match was marked by the upper village hiding the ball under pipes near the lower village river. People eventually gave up looking for the ball until the upper village players pulled it out and brought it back to their side.
"One time, two guys cut the ball in half. They were outsiders – locals would never do that," Koblava asserts.
This year, there were no tricks and no serious injuries. After more than two hours of play, upper Shukhuti managed to get the ball to their riverbank. Traffic on Georgia's east-west highway resumed as spectators dispersed. Bruised players in ripped shirts hobbled home.
The ball was brought immediately to the nearby Pirckaliashvili home in memory of their son Ako, who died unexpectedly the year before. The next day, the family, like the rest of the village, visited the cemetery. But the Pirckaliashvilis had the added honor of placing the lelo ball on their son's memory.