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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.

By Paul RimpleCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2009

The team from upper Shukhuti celebrated their victory Sunday over their rivals from the lower portion of the village. The goal of lelo, a game that combines rugby tactics with the chaos of the running of the bulls, is to fight for control of a 35 pound ball. There are no rules, but if a person falls, other players are expected to pause and help.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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Shukhuti, Georgia

There is no referee, because there are no rules.

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There are no time-outs and no limit to the number of participants, although children are discouraged.

The game is called lelo, and, despite periodic attempts to ban it, it has been played since time immemorial exclusively in this western Georgian village every year on Orthodox Easter Sunday.

"If you fall on the asphalt, we stop the game to help you up – sometimes," says Dursun Abkhadze, Shukhuti's octogenarian blacksmith and a former lelo competitor.

It is a simple game. The playing area is the entire village of Shukhuti, which is set between two rivers. The match starts when the village priest drops a 35-lb. ball in the middle of the two-lane highway that runs through Shukhuti. The upper and lower halves of the village then struggle against each other – by any means necessary – to carry the ball some 225 yards back to their respective riverbanks.

When fully under way, a match looks like an enormous rugby scrum madly plowing through the village with the passion of Pamplona's running of the bulls. When you see it coming, you run.

Nobody knows where lelo (which means "try" in Georgian) originated, when it was introduced, and why it is played on Easter Sunday. It is simply a village tradition.

Tamaz Imnaishvili, a local journalist, has a theory that the game appeared as a commemoration to a battle that occurred in Shukhuti between the Ottoman and Russian empires in 1855.

The local priest, Father Saba, who, like other priests here goes by a single name, sees the game as an extension of Georgia's inherent bond with pre-Christian rituals, which he says were interwoven with the teachings of St. Andrew, who preached the gospel in the region.

"Lelo is a tradition. Of course, it's not good when people hurt each other, but today, this is the best possible way to express the spirit of heroism and vitality," says Father Saba, a former Greco-Roman wrestler.

Spirit of competition trumps politics

The ritual of lelo begins at the home where a local shoemaker – and lelo ballmaker – once lived.

Food and wine is offered as neighbors gather in the front yard to help fill the ball with one puti (an ancient Georgian measurement equivalent to 35 pounds) of sand, earth, and wine, which is poured after toasts are made to the memory of the dead.

"This is the preparation ceremony for the battle that is called lelo," explains Mr. Imniashvili.

The ball is then taken to the church and blessed by the priest. Imniashvili says that the ball was traditionally baptized in a mixture used in pre-Christian celebrations in western Georgia.