Honoring deceased lelo players

On Easter Monday, families visit their ancestors' graves. You can see lelo balls in various stages of decomposition can be seen on graves in both of Shukhuti's cemeteries. The balls honor a deceased lelo player; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Alexander Imnaishvili visits the grave of his brother, Tornike, who died in a car accident at the age of 20; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012. 

The East side wins for the third year in a row

The East side crosses its creek to victory; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Victory; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Robizon Mgeladze controls the lelo ball at the end of the game; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Everyone wants to touch the ball; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Unrestrained aggression on Easter Sunday? It’s lelo!

Father Saba had thrown up the 16-kg lelo ball and the struggle began; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Zuri Qiqava, 50 years old, is in the midst of the pushing and shoving at the beginning of lelo; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Robizon Kobalava, almost 50, is helped up. Lelo only has one rule--whenever someone falls to the ground (a common occurrence), players raise a hand high, and the game slows. Lelo doesn't stop, but some players help the fallen warriors; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

People in the immediate vicinity of the lelo ball feel the most force, while people at the edges of the scrum try to push the entire mass of hundreds of players toward "their" creek; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

During the contest, shirts are torn, bodies cut and bruised, and shoes fly through the air. Players step away to take a break, and then they continue pushing the mass in "their" direction; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

I began photographing lelo from the roof of the bus stop, but I soon climbed down and joined the melee. My goal was to get close enough to photograph all of the action and all of the players’ contorted faces, but not to actually join the game. This goal was impossible because the mass of players was constantly moving forward or backward, left or right. Everyone in the vicinity got shoved into the rugby-type scrum. After all, lelo has no rules, no referees, no time-outs, and no limit of players. No one cares if a photographer or bystander gets crushed, or if a garden gets trampled, or if 300 strong men suddenly enter someone’s home uninvited; ALL THAT MATTTERS is getting the 16-kilogram lelo ball and moving it towards “your” goal line. Two creeks about 150 meters apart represent the goal lines.

Misha and family watch lelo in Shukhuti

President Saakashvili joins a crowd in the middle of a Shukhuti street where the ancient game of lelo is about to begin; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Crowd gathers in the middle of the street for the start of lelo; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, watched the start of the lelo game with his wife, younger son, and government members. About 300 people played the ancient game, and hundreds of people watched.

I had been waiting by the stage, for about 45 minutes, in order to photograph Misha, but then the crowd began to gather in the street for the start of lelo, so I gave up on the idea of photographing Georgia’s president. Instead, I climbed a ladder to the roof of the bus stop, where I was confident I could get an overview of the start of the game. To my surprise, Misha did not address the crowd from the stage. He walked into the middle of the crowd in the middle of the street.

Earlier a member of the president’s security team had approached me. Nini Chakvetadze translated and I learned that the plain-clothed guard did not want me to photograph the convoy of vehicles that was going to transport Saakashvili. I said OK and then asked if I could photograph the President. The guard said, yes. So I assured the guard I was far more interested in photographing the President than some cars with heavily tinted windows.

Father Saba blesses the lelo ball and escorts it to his church

Father Saba offers a toast to lelo; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Father Saba leads the "parade" to St. George's church from from the home where the lelo ball was made; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Father Saba throws the lelo ball to the Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, Goga Khachidze; various people tried to catch the heavy ball; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

After the Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, Goga Khachidze, caught the lelo ball, he suggested that I take a turn. Goga explained that I should absorb the momentum of the heavy ball by holding out my arms and then bringing them into my body. I gave him my camera, thinking he’d photograph me catching the ball, but Goga misunderstood; he thought he was holding my camera to protect it. Father Saba lobbed the ball. I caught it. And I fell backwards onto my butt. The force had literally bowled me over. Everyone laughed, including me. I wish I had that photo!

Making the lelo ball

Filling the empty leather ball with sand and dirt; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

About 11am on Easter morning, Pavle led us to the home where the lelo ball was being made. We saw children stuffing an empty leather ball with sand/dirt, while adults talked, laughed, drank red wine and vodka, and ate various snacks. Some adults poured wine and vodka into the ball. As the ball filled, they used a stick to pack the sand tighter and tighter. The goal was to have the ball weigh 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds). Some people believe the lelo ball should weigh 16-kg because a puti—an ancient Georgian measurement equivalent to 16 kilograms—traditionally described the ball’s weight.

Adding wine to the lelo ball; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, Goga Khachidze, pours vodka into the lelo ball; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Weighing the lelo ball to make sure it is 16 kilograms (35 pounds); copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Tying a knot made of a leather thong to seal the lelo ball; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Arriving in Shukhuti for Easter (and lelo)

Mosqia Gocha, mayor of Shukhuti, and Father Saba, priest at St. George's church in Shukhuti, at the village's bus stop on the main road between Tbilisi and Batumi; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Easter service at St. George's Church in Shukhuti; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Nini Chakvetadze, one of our Georgian “daughters,” and I took a marshrutka  (minibus) to Shukhuti, which is a village of about 2,000 people in the western region of Guria in Western Georgia. We traveled 5 hours from Tbilisi in order to create a multimedia story about the ancient game of lelo, which means “goal” or “try” in Georgian, but is also called Lelo Burti, which means “field ball” in Georgian. Lelo only occurs in this particular village in Georgia and is only played on Orthodox Easter.

Upon arrival, we asked the first people we saw about a place to stay for two nights. We were kindly directed to Father Saba, standing nearby, who immediately took charge. He called one of his “soul daughters” and “soul sons,” Pavle Oragvelidze and his wife Lile, who graciously agreed to host us. I understand that a “soul child” is a member of a church with whom a priest has a special relationship; soul daughters and sons only confess to a particular priest. Father Saba accompanied us to Pavle and Lile’s  home, where he asked if we’d like some vodka (no, thank you). Then Pavle and Lile asked if we were hungry and if we’d like some wine (yes, and yes, please). Finally, Father Saba explained that we would be the guests of the village and that no one would accept any payment for our food or accommodation. Then he left us because Father Saba plays a very important role in the community, especially conducting Easter services and preparing for lelo.

In the evening, we attended Father Saba’s church, St. George’s, for Orthodox Easter.