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Georgia: Village Celebrates Easter with Rugby-Style Struggle for a Ball

Ancient game ends with bringing the ball to water. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

While the rest of Georgia celebrated Easter on April 4 at home around the dinner table, one village in western Georgia marked the day with a rugby-like scramble that effectively blocked traffic for hours on the country's East-West national highway.

The game, lelo ( "goal" or "try" or in Georgian), has no rules, no time-outs, and no limit to the number of people (men only) who may play. The "field" is the entire village of Shukhuti, a hamlet of about 2,000 in the western region of Guria, not far from the regional seat of Lanchkhuti. Two creeks, about 150 meters apart, mark the goal lines for two teams, made up of residents from the upper and lower halves of the village. The aim is simple: whichever side is the first to carry a 16-kilogram leather ball back to their creek wins the game.

Victory means dedicating the ball to a deceased villager and placing it on his grave after the match -- a reflection of Georgian Orthodox Church traditions of visiting cemeteries on Easter to commemorate loved ones. Lelo balls in various stages of decomposition can be seen on graves in both of Shukhuti's cemeteries.

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Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Village Celebrates Easter with Rugby-Style Struggle for a Ball

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