Photo: Nicolas Brodard
While traveling from eastern Georgia to the west or vice-versa, who knows how many times we have crossed Guria without noticing Shukhuti village. It’s probably because you’ve not ventured there during the Easter celebration. Apart from celebrating this holiday, Leloburti (Georgian handball) is played there directly on the main road, meaning no traffic is allowed to pass until players from either eastern or western Shukhuti possess the 16kg leather ball.
There is a gorge approximately 50 meters from the western side of the epicenter of the game and another gorge is located in the eastern side at the same distance. Thus, victory belongs to the person who succeeds in getting the ball over the gorge.
Leloburti was played in other Georgian regions as well, but nowadays this tradition is only preserved in Shukhuti. The game has much common with rugby, but the rules differ.
One day our friends visited us from Poland and we decided to make a trip together around Georgia, so being ‘brainless’ we went to Batumi on the Easter holiday and having reached Shukhuti, we saw the jam-packed and blocked central road. We had to stop our car.
Before starting the game, the ball, blessed in a church, is brought by a priest to the epicenter and as soon as a gun is shot skyward, the priest throws the ball and the game kicks off. Aside from Leloburti; concerts, wrestling and other national games take place in Shukhuti.
It was impossible to continue our journey before the end of the game. We explained the situation to our foreign friends, then bought beer and joined the crowd to enjoy the special celebration. Elderly, children, Shukhuti dwellers, people from other villages and us among them… We attended concerts, watched wrestling and got tired, in addition we were told that the game would start in an hour or two; thus we decided to escape the crowd and take a walk in the village. We followed a village road, narrow country-tracks, the noise was slowly calming down. We passed an open gate and heard a voice, “Please come in!” It was a man who, having noticed our European look (I don’t have a very Georgian appearance) greeted us with a mix of Russian, English and French without any confusion. When he heard that we were Georgians accompanied by Polish friends, his face began to shine and the man invited us even more enthusiastically. We agreed, entered his house and saw our host and his cuisine cozily sitting and drinking a glass or two before going out to ‘battle’. Their feast was modest; cucumbers and tomatoes, herbs, cheese, Georgian bread and the main dish- Ajapsandali (a vegetarian dish consisting of eggplants, potato, tomato, bell pepper and seasoning). “That’s how it is! The women went to the center and left us with just this Ajapsandali”. Afterwards, he filled special wine glasses with local wine Chkhaveri; we combined all previous toasts in one and our hosts drank to our toasts.
“Please, help yourself to Ajapsandali, what can we do, the women ran away…” he said, laughing… His cousin kept quiet. Our Polish friends also tasted some Ajapsandali. They filled our glasses again. I asked how it is possible to play after having drunk so much wine.
Now the cousin broke his silence and said that without drinking, only a fool would play that game; we all started to laugh and glasses were again filled. Then we drank a toast to some Gela. According to tradition, the Leloburti winner should take the ball to the cemetery and devote his victory to a young deceased village dweller. That year this deceased person was Gela. We did not stop at this toast and another one was dedicated to our children, as continuation of life. The Polish guests tasted Ajapsandali again. Our host asked if they liked it, they said they did and asked for the recipe.
“Huh, it is very simple, like Leloburti where everyone can take part, it’s the same principle and every vegetable can ‘participate’ in the dish; it does not need extra boiling and like the game, when the main goal is to get the ball over the gorge, you need to make it tasty,” said the host and began giggling. We also started to laugh, it was already time to leave, we drank again for our families and the men saw us to the gate. We wished them victory.
“Who do you wish to win?” They asked. As it turned out, our host was from Upper Shukhuti and the cousin from Lower Shukhuti and very soon they would stand opposite each other. We started to laugh again and got some ‘precious’ advice: “if you aren’t going to play this game, in order to save your clothes and watch the game, it’s better to ¬climb into a tree or stand on a fence,” he said.
Soon came the gunshot and approximately two hundred people started to fight for a ball. We took into account the advice and climbed up into a tree and then onto the roof of the bus-station in order better to watch the moving crowd of Shukhuti dwellers.
Our Polish friends tried to catch all significant fleeting moments trough their photo-cameras. I don’t remember exactly how long the game lasted, or who won, but I remember clearly that we hardly could move through the crowd, and loud whooping and scansions – Gela, Gela followed us for a long while.
On our way to Batumi we thought about the roots of this tradition, that it must be very old, maybe dating back to paganism. Who knows?! But it is a fact that Georgian rugby players are very successful today and it must be somehow linked with the traditions of playing Leloburti.
Our friends developed the photos taken in Shukhuti and we found a kind of similarity between Leloburti and the Ajapsandali dish. Plus, in the crowd of fighting Shukhuti dwellers we found one familiar ‘ingredient’ – the cousin of our host.