Rugby without rules - Ancient tradition of Leloburti in Georgia
19 April, 2017
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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.
Polish photographer Magdalena Konik attended the big event and describes the game from the very inside.

“Lelo Burti - a game with a tradition of over 3000 years. Once played throughout the Caucasus to find the quickest, strongest, and cleverest among the villages or their parts to know who will be responsible for defense in the case of an attack. Today it bears the character of the celebration of Orthodox Easter only in one village in Guria. According to the tradition, the ball is folded on a previously selected grave in the cemetery in Lower or Upper Shukhuti, depending on the winning team.
Around 12.00 PM, leather balls filled with sand, sawdust, fur, wine. At 2 PM, a solemn dedication took place in the church in the middle of the village. At 5 PM the excitement reached its zenith. A jolt kicked off the ball. The crowd shouted "Mamuka!" The other side of the crowd shouted another name. Scream, sweat, monstrous squeeze. The crowd was pressing. It changed direction every moment.
This year, the ball was solemnly deposited on the grave of Mamuka, a 25-year-old boy who died at the end of last year in a car accident returning home. Every moment someone kneeled at the plate with his image, squeezed a heavy ball and spoke in Georgian "it is for you Mamuka". Someone shouted, "Today we celebrate the day when Jesus rose from the dead! You will also rise again." In the eyes of men who had fought for the ball a moment ago, there were sadness and tears, which they were not
ashamed to show.

After a moment – supra [traditional Georgian feast].
One woman asked where we are from. Because of our Polish origin, she invited us to the table to celebrate with the family of Mamuka. The greatest honor,” Magdalena says.

Follow the story on her website and her official Facebook page.

History of Leloburti
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. As it is known, Leloburti existed even in BC period. 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, the locals say. 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.

The Ball
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.
Photo courtesy: Magdalena Konik
Video courtesy: Irakli Gedenidze

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