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.
Shukhuti, Georgia — There is no referee, because there are no rules.
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.
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.
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.