Leloburti – A Georgian Ancestor of Rugby
10 April, 2015
Leloburti – A Georgian Ancestor of Rugby
Easter in Georgia has numerous traditions and rituals associated with it, but for inhabitants of Guria the greatest Christian holiday would be incomplete without an ancient Georgian game of leloburti. The village of Shukhuti, Lanchkhuti region, has a three-century-old tradition: on Easter, all of its inhabitants split into two teams and begin the battle for possession of a 16-kilogram ball. The hefty sphere, stuffed with wood shavings and sand, is blessed by the village priest, who then throws it into the air and the game begins. Several hundred people take to the game with such fervor that the ball is barely visible behind the huddle of bodies. The game, which features men, women, elderly and children alike, lasts for several hours and ends when one of the teams pushes the ball to a “lelo” – a small river.

Revaz Chitidze, denizen of Shukhuti:

“The village splits into upper and lower Shukhuti, and the road that splits the center of lower Shukhuti becomes the border of the “field.” The game begins in a location that is equally distant from both of the small rivers that flow to the west and east of the village. Both teams try to bring the ball to ‘their’ river; whichever team manages this is pronounced the winner.”

“Rib and collarbone fractures are frequent during the game of leloburti, but serious trauma is very rare.”

But why specifically on Easter, one might ask? Since it is the greatest holiday for the entire Orthodox Christian world, Gurians in general and inhabitants of Shukhuti in particular have decided to associate it with their favorite game as well. This tradition has continued uninterrupted for more than three hundred years, with the only exception being years 1941-1945, when few had time and mettle for games in a time of war. It is noteworthy that communists, in their ceaseless drive to destroy everything Christian, turned the festive game into an ordinary sports competition and transferred it to the 1st of May. However, the tradition was returned to its established date in 1990.

Revaz Chitidze:

“As a rule, a shot is fired into the air and the ball is brought to the field by the two oldest players from both teams. Two most well-known leloburti players, Grigol Apkhadze and Kosta Aragvelidze, died at the age of 90 but desp
ite that did not go a single year without participating in the game! Can you imagine the power it takes to overcome the push of more than 200 players trying to take the ball from you? Rib and collarbone fractures are frequent during the game of leloburti, but serious trauma is very rare.”
However, Father Saba, the abbot of the village’s St. George Cathedral that is located in the center of the village, has taken up the duty of bringing the ball to the field himself as of late. The amount of players in both teams is no longer strictly set, since not all inhabitants of the village are able to participate anymore. Still, the game continues to remain lasting and entertaining. There were cases when it lasted up to 6 hours.

Revaz Chitidze:

“When the game stretches out, even a few rested players who re-enter the battle – so-called new bloods – can turn the tide drastically. I’ve seen games when the ball that was almost at the riverbank was snatched away by the other team who managed to not only make a comeback at the brink of defeat, but also win the game! This is no small feat. The ball for leloburti is made of cow skin and filled with sand and wood shavings soaked in sanctified wine. It weighs 16 kilograms and throwing it around requires a lot of energy. Our ancestors, before beginning the game, would drink a special drink called “aguna,” believing that it would keep them energized and focused.

In addition to splitting into two teams, players are also split into several categories within them: there are those who hold the ball or fight for it directly, there are those who stay around the main group in order to direct the flow of the game and there are also women and children; they cannot go into the thick of it, but they help their team by intercepting the ball if it unexpectedly gets out of hand. Leloburti is so engaging that sometimes viewers themselves decide to join. And there is no lack of viewers, either. People from the entire region come to watch the game. In the 1970s there emerged a ritual of the winning team bringing the ball to the grave of a player who died during the year and leaving it there. This is why every year a new ball is sewn and stuffed.”
Photos by www.msy.gov.ge (Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs of Georgia)

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