Georgia has long been associated with the traditions of winemaking, song and dance. But the South Caucasus nation can also lay claim to a rich legacy in martial arts.
Traditional Georgian martial arts are a combination of boxing, wrestling and fencing. They have been steadily regaining popularity since the Soviet collapse in 1991. For the past four years, demonstrations by the martial arts group The Black Shields (Shavparosnebi) – complete with daggers, swords, double-bladed axes and more -- have been a runaway hit at the annual national folk festival Art Gene.
The group, whose members dress in leggings and elaborately embroidered tunics, takes its name from historical groups of armed Georgians, who, with their faces and armor painted black, would attack enemies, usually troops belonging to foreign occupying armies, at night.
“Factually, they were partisans,” said 33-year-old Giorgi Tsitsriashvili, one of The Black Shields’ founders. “When occupied, very often Georgia could afford only guerrilla wars.”
Constantly overrun by invaders, the country developed over the centuries a clearly defined set of martial art techniques. Many of the moves resemble those of karate, jujutsu or other eastern martial arts. Strong differences, however, also exist. In some Georgian highland regions, fighters preferred short daggers to long swords for the narrow mountain trails on which they fought. In other mountainous regions, like Svaneti, in northwestern Georgia, locals devised stiff hats made of pressed wool to ward off dagger stabs.
Industrialization and the invention of firearms changed the nature of warfare, and, over time, Georgians lost touch with their traditional fighting techniques: “We knew about Georgian traditional chants and dances, but nothing was known about fight techniques,” said Tsitsriashvili, who works as a stage director.
With a group of friends, ranging from artists to economists, Tsistriashvili started researching the subject as the Soviet Union teetered toward collapse. Museums, historical documents and expeditions to remote mountain regions where knowledge of the fighting techniques had been preserved all provided information for what proved to be a vast field for research.
At first, the group’s interest focused on the defensive and offensive moves used by Georgians in ancient battles. Learning the techniques, at first, was no more than a sport, Tsitsriashvili said. They later realized that a distinct philosophy served as a foundation for the techniques. “Just like each founder of a martial arts school in China or Japan had a philosophy they would convey to their students, Georgian martial art was also based on some ideology,” he related. “The only difference was that it wasn’t a philosophy of one person, but rather the joint wisdom of the whole nation.”
The philosophy consisted of a set of concepts concerning honor, respect and patriotism. The concepts would pass from generation to generation in the form of poems and tales, often retold by elders, whose authority in Georgia, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, was indisputable.
A willingness to endure both psychological and physical discomfort to master these arts is key. Training exercises, conducted outdoors in all weather, can involve nocturnal foraging in a forest outside of Tbilisi in search of an item hidden by Black Shield instructors.
Practitioners are only male -- a gender imbalance that Tsitsriashvili claims could be attributed to the fact that the group eschews indoor trainings.
Even so, the number of Black Shield students is steadily growing; an increase that parallels a revived interest in traditional Georgian dance and music as well. With studios in most major Georgian towns, the group claims a national membership of 300 to 400 participants. Some 35 instructors and 40-50 students are in Tbilisi alone.
“Nobody gets here by chance,” commented 25-year-old marketing specialist Irakli Kokosadze, a Black Shields member who happened across group a few years ago while jogging at the Tbilisi hippodrome. “If a person comes here, then it means something led him. He finds something for himself in this tradition.”
That appears to be the case for 17-year-old Giorgi Javakhishvili, one of the group’s youngest members, who joined The Black Shields two years ago after seeing them perform. Known as a worthy opponent in boxing, he says his passion, despite the recurring cuts and bruises, is fencing.
Asked whether he had used any of these combat techniques in real life, Javakhishvili’s response was succinct: “Not yet.”
Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.