Considered the predecessor of modern Georgian rugby, Lelo Burti is a centuries-old game played every Easter, in the western village of Shukhuti.
Lelo Burti is played only once a year, on Easter Sunday, and only in Shukhuti. Men from the upper and lower parts of the village compete against each other struggling to get a leather ball to a river, on the outskirt’s of their opponents’ half. Whichever team reaches their goal first is declared the winner, there are no other rules.
The morning before the game, participants gather to drink wine from the empty leather ball, before it is filled with 16 kilograms of dirt topped up with some more wine. Before the game begins, the village’s Orthodox priest blesses the ball, and this seems to make it an even more coveted price, as neither of the two halves hold back in trying to control it. Lelo Burti is a primitive tradition that is carried out the same way as it was many generations ago – the two groups smash everything in their paths as they approach the village center, including fences, gardens and orchards, scale walls and scrabble across ditches. As soon as the ball is in play, the game turns into a festival of unrestrained aggression fueled by gallons of previously consumed wine, where getting the ball is all that counts.
Men scream both in pain and determination, as they grab and push their opponents to protect or recover the blessed ball. Bruised and covered in mud, Lelo Burti players never give up and claim this is not a game for the fearful or the weak. The violence only lasts until one of the teams manage to get the ball to the opposing half’s part of Shukhuti, after which the crowd heads for the village cemetery where they place the blessed leather ball on the headstone of a former Lelo Burti participant who recently died. Looking around, one can see dozens of other old balls placed on other headstones. Then the mud-covered crowd heads to the churchyard, where a large wooden table with food and wine awaits them for a well-deserved feast. Now that’s how Easter should be celebrated.
Photo by ZURAB KURTSKIDZE/EPA via Dagbladet.no