Every Easter, people in Shukhuti, a small village in Guria, western Georgia, clash in the centre of the village over a heavy, 16–17 kg ball. This tradition, a kind of game of honor, is called Leloburti. Shukhuti is divided into two parts — Zemo (upper) and Kvemo (lower) Shukhuti — both of which field teams which clash every year.
Streams flow through both Zemo and Kvemo Shukhuti, both 130 meters from the centre of the village. The only rule in the game is that each team must get the ball to their stream. As soon as the ball reaches one of the streams, the game is over.
The ball, which is newly created every year, is taken to the grave of a person who died in the past year in either Zemo or Kvemo Shukhuti, depending on who wins the game.
The day is long. No one really knows when this tradition began, but according to most claims, Leloburtis is at least 300 years old. Every Easter Sunday, people gather in the early morning in the garden of a house in the village centre.
A small Easter supra (feast) is held with eggs painted in red, paska (easter cake), khachapuri, mtsvadi (barbequed meats) and lots of wine. Wine is an important part of the day.
There is a stereotype among Georgians that people from Guria have the best sense of humour, and archpriest Saba could serve as a good example of this, as he interacts with people, telling jokes, sometimes quite unusual jokes for a priest.
‘God, I hope the bishop won’t see tapes of what I am saying here. “Where did I find this man and how could I make him an archpriest”, he would say’, Saba said before drinking another bowl of wine. For almost twenty years Saba has managed the tradition of Lelo.
Meanwhile, several people are sitting near Saba trying to fill the Lelo ball. The contents of the ball are quite simple: mostly sand and sawdust. If that’s not enough, Saba will add some wine and then it’s ready. This year the ball weighed 16 kg.
When the ball is ready, people wash it, pose with it, and give it to archpriest Saba, who will take the ball to the local church, which is also close to the village centre. The walk to the church can also be fun, as Saba throws the ball to people so that they can feel how heavy it is and how challenging it will be to win the game.
A little fun with throwing the ball here and there continues in the churchyard. Then the priests take it inside. They will recite a chant and then the ball rests there until 17:00.
It’s almost 17:00; Archpriest Saba holds the ball tightly in his arms. He is accompanied by several men, who help him to make his way through the crowd of people. But it will be tougher for him to get out of the crowd after he throws the ball in the air. One of the men holds a shotgun; he will give the signal to start the game.
It is dangerous to be in the middle. A man injured his nose in the middle of the game. When something happens men raise hands in the air indicating each that something is wrong, when the danger is over the crowd moves away.
In 2015 a man died of heart failure during the game. According to RFE/RL, Gocha Pirtskhalaishvili was still alive when he was taken from the crowd, but doctors failed to save him. Lelo continued.
In 2017, according to some local residents, was a record breaking year — the game ended in just 22 minutes. The team from Zemo Shukhuti won the game. There was a great vibe among the team, as they kept yelling the name of their friend Mamuka, a 25-year-old man, who died in a car accident. His friends had sworn that they would win Lelo for him, and take the Lelo ball to his grave. And so they did.
This year the game lasted about two hours. A team of Zemo Shukhuti took the victory.
As soon as the team reached the stream of Zemo Shukhuti with the ball, the victory celebrations began.
After the game, street looks like a battlefield. There are some torn clothes, shoes, bottles, even blood everywhere. Some men are shirtless. They are covered in mud and sweaty. Some have stains of blood on their face and body.
People used to play Lelo in several villages in Guria, but only in Shukuhti does it still take place. Every year more tourists come to see the game.
‘We really want more people to learn about Lelo in Guria’, archpriest Saba tells journalists. "After all, people may understand that the true roots of rugby are here, in Georgia, not in England".
The government of Georgia granted the status of ‘nonmaterial cultural heritage’ to Lelo in 2014.
Originally published by OC Media