Ages old battle for a ball

April 27, 2011

Every year on Orthodox Easter, traffic is blocked for hours on the main highway in Western Georgia to allow the men of Shukhuti village to battle for a 16-kilogram (35 pounds) leather ball, stuffed tight with sawdust, soil and topped with red wine.

Villagers from upper and lower Shukhuti gather under an old tree in front of the abandoned building, formerly the House of Culture during Soviet times. Divided into two teams, they face each other and trade cries, egging themselves on. Father Saba, the local Orthodox priest, carries the ball surrounded by his helpers like bodyguards to throw the ball into the crowd. Lelo has begun.

The playground stretches between two brooks, about 150 meters apart, marking the goal lines for the two teams. The aim is simple: whichever side is the first to carry the leather ball back to their brook wins the game. The game looks like rugby, but without rules, except one: if someone falls, the match is paused to allow a player to stand up. Nothing else can stop them.

I had photographed Lelo once before and had only a little experience on how to behave.

Whether shooting pictures or just watching, you should be ready to be involved in the whirlwind of Lelo. It may happen suddenly and then you need to collect all your strength to force your way back through the crowd, or just resign yourself to becoming part of the game. Perhaps it’s the only sport where everyone has the opportunity to become a player at least for a few minutes.

I, however, preferred to keep my distance and to stay with the fans – women, children and elders – watching the huge scrum of men, smashing through fences, backyards and gardens.

I remembered the best point for shooting was on the second floor of the abandoned House of Culture. So, when the crowd reached the building, I went inside and carefully groped my way through the dilapidated building. I took up a position at the window on the second floor near a huge hole in the wooden floor. It was the perfect spot. Everything happened in front of my eyes and nobody could block the view. I could enjoy the game for the first time. But life is not always so easy. Soon, the mass of people moved in the direction of the upper brook. I had to leave my favorite place and follow the crowd in their chaotic movement.

The next stop was in the middle of the highway. Players got stuck and fans whirled around them. There was an instant when everything became mixed up, and I couldn’t make out who were the players and who were the spectators, and the ball, which everyone was hunting for, was lying right at my feet. The next moment, I was shoved aside. The match went on.

Nobody knows when and where the first Lelo match was played, but Georgians have been playing it throughout the country since ancient times. It was equally popular both among nobility and commoners. The game was even used to hone martial skills. But now days Lelo is played once a year and only in Shukhuti.

This year the match lasted only two hours. Upper Shukhutians attacked relentlessly, and finally dragged the ball over their brook. They won.

Following Lelo’s main tradition, the winners carried the ball to the cemetery. Even before the game they had decided to whom they would dedicate their victory. They put the ball on the grave of their close friend.

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