This article originally appeared on VICE US
Hundreds of men surround Father Saba, waiting intensely. A combustible concoction of alcohol, adrenaline, and (Orthodox) God-knows-what-else roars through their veins and crawls into their sweat on this hot spring day. The men focus on the black leather ball the size of an award-winning squash. in their priest's hands. They are crouched, ready, and eager to explode. A group begins to chant, "Lelo, Lelo, Lelo." Out of nowhere a literal cow emerges from the crowd and walks up to where the priest stands as if the animal understands something holy, of sorts, is about to happen. One of the men kicks the interloping animal, and the cow disappears back into the throng. A pistol cracks, and Father Saba tosses the 35-pound, jet-black cowskin ball into the air. This is how Lelo, an annual Georgian bloodsport, begins: with a ball and a bang.
As it descends from the sky, the ball looks like a giant leather pumpkin. It's stuffed with sand and sawdust, a concoction that is then drenched with holy wine and sewn shut. All the players are full of wine too, and their belligerence is almost palpable in the hot afternoon sun. When the the ball hits the ground, a hellish sort of chaos immediately erupts as the crowd swarms and begins attacking itself. Many of the women, children, and elderly gravitate outward, away from the center of the scrum, forming a kind of circle. Most of the men do the opposite, creating a cluster of perpetual collision that will continue for the next several hours as they dive after the black ball, trying to carry it to a makeshift "goal post" that will end the game.
Each year on Orthodox Easter—May 1 this year—a battle rages on the paved road that passes through Lanchkhuti, a town in Georgia's Guria region. The game, if you can even call it that, is an amalgamation of rugby, a battle, and a mosh pit. The violence is intimate, but not personal. It's fitting that on a day when Georgians are celebrating a resurrection, they play a game that makes them feel alive.
There are no rules to Lelo. There are a few vague customs. The goal is to get the heavy leather ball to one of the two small rivers, or "lelos," which sit on opposite ends of the town like goal posts. The game doesn't end until this happens. Each riverbed is an equal distance from the town's center, where Father Saba starts the match. For three centuries, Georgian men have been chasing after the Lelo ball, sometimes getting seriously injured and occasionally even dying in the process. In the future, Georgian men will likely die in its pursuit. This is understood by all who play; this is tradition.
During the Lelo match, the town is divided by an imaginary line that is ingrained in the minds of the residents of Lanchkhuti as if it were a canyon. Only the residents of Lanchkhuti and those from the neighboring villages know who is on which team, though people from all over Georgia come to play. Anybody—be it your brother, your mother, your son—whose home is on the other side of the line becomes your enemy. One side or team is called Upper, the other is called Lower. There are no uniforms, nothing to mark which side the player is from.
Between the two rivers is Lanchkhuti's main thoroughfare, which closes every Easter for Lelo. Bus stops, residents' yards, and even people's porches are considered part of the field of play, giving the sport an urban warfare vibe. If a player wants to derail the momentum, he might toss the ball into a fenced-in area. By simply standing in the road, you become part of the game; you are playing. If you don't move out of the way, you will be beaten, trampled, tackled, offered red wine from a plastic bottle, or all four at once.
When the priest ignites the game, the ball is rarely seen by the human eye. Those who find it often find themselves instinctively clutching and grasping for it. They are consumed, crushed against the pavement, stuck at the bottom of the human pile with little chance of escape. Last year a middle-aged man died this way. His name was Gocha Pirtkhalaishvili and he suffered from a fatal heart attack while trapped inside a mass of players.
According to tradition, at the end of the match the ball is left on the grave of the most recent person in the town to die since the previous Easter. This year the ball was placed on Pirtkhalaishvili's tombstone. Next year a new ball will be made, and a new game will begin. Despite the occasional tragedy, there isn't much talk of making Lelo safer. Everyone I spoke to during this year's match said the true meaning and spirit of the game is "about tradition," even if that means there's the occasional unintentional human sacrifice.
There is also more strategy than one would expect/ The older, more experienced players drive the younger ones, many of whom are afraid (and thus constantly drinking) into battle. At this year's Lelo spectacle, VICE noticed two different leaders in particular driving the momentum of the match: Gela "the General" Pirtkhalaishvili and Nona "the Queen" Chkhaidze.
Chkhaidze is 65 years old. Both her grandson and her daughter came with her from another village to embrace the chaos of Lelo. During the game, she held her own, standing just behind the men carrying the ball, the most dangerous place to stand. At one point, she literally pushed players forward and ordered them where and how to move.
She said she was playing this year to honor her brother, who had recently died. "He loved this game so much," she said. "He is playing with us right now."
"I've been playing this since childhood, and I am one of the leaders," Pirtkhalaishvili, a massive blonde man in remarkable shape, told us. "We make rules: You cannot hit a person who has fallen. And when someone has fallen and is hurt, everyone holds their hands up in the air. We are controlling all of this. We also developed a strategy of how to steal the ball from the opponents."
"The General," as he seems to be known as in the town, spent most of the day chasing the ball and shouting orders to his teammates until he was red in the face. His leadership paid off and his Lower side won for the first time several years. The Queen was defeated.
"I feel perfect. As long as I'm alive, I'll always play this game," Pirtkhalaishvili said once the game ended. "But [Lelo] is not safe. We are all crazy—that's why we play. We play because of our self-pride. We have warrior's blood, but we are not invaders like the Mongolians. We are defending something and this game is a kind of reproduction—defeating an enemy. There are times that I am afraid, but that makes me stronger. I feel a responsibility for my ancestors when I play."
"Lelo could be 3,000 years old, possibly even older," said Dato Kilasonia, Vice President of the Lelo Foundation, which helps organize the Easter event. Other accounts say references to the game first appeared in a 12th-century poem. "We have the same genetics as our ancestors. That's why we still play Lelo. It is an ancestor of rugby. Since Georgia became a Christian country, people have been playing Lelo at religious events.
"Many years ago, Georgians would play Lelo to warm up before going into battle. Even today the Georgian army plays Lelo. This is one of the three oldest games in the world. If a man dies playing this game, his family feels that he died in battle, and that he sacrificed himself."
The history of Lelo, as you can imagine, includes plenty of legends.
"Several years ago the ball fell into a well and several men jumped in after it," Koba Pirtkhalaishvili, a longtime Lelo participant, told me. He also told me his favorite moment: "There was a man named Solomon who was extremely tall and very strong. Nobody could take the ball away from him. So one clever lady took a razor blade and cut his pants. They fell down to his shoes. So when Solomon leaned down to pull his pants up, they took the ball away from him."
Not everyone is satisfied with the status quo of the game.
"I have never played," said Mirian Pirtkhalaishvili, the village's archpriest, who watched as another priest started the game hours earlier. "I think there should be at least some rules, and it should be a more civil game.
"For instance, one year they wanted to honor a very old Lelo player named Kosta Oragvelide, so they asked him to officially start the game by throwing the ball. When they handed the ball to him, it was so heavy that the old man couldn't hold it and he fell on the ground. All of the players then jumped on top of him to grab the ball. He ended up with four broken ribs and was never able to walk again. He died not long after."
At the end of the game, after the Lower team had won, a young Georgian in his late 20s was laid out in the middle of the road near the river, smoking a cigarette. His leg was clearly broken and a group of passersby were trying to convince him to put it on the curb to elevate it. The young man was too tired, in too much pain, and simply refused to move. We offered to carry him to a taxi and take him to the hospital, but he politely declined. Instead we handed him a beer, which he accepted. Before walking away, we asked, "If you knew this was going to happen, would you still have played?"
"Of course," the young man replied as he sipped on his beer and took a drag of his cigarette. "And I'll be back here next year too."
See more photos below.