SHUKHUTI, Georgia — Luka Torotadze, 11, was crouched beside his great-uncle Bitchiko’s grave, wiping dust off a plump, leather ball that rested beneath the headstone.
The ball, once black but now the color of ash, has been there for 15 years, and though it might have looked odd among the flowers and candles and picture frames nearby, a stroll through any of the cemeteries of this rural village would eventually reveal several dozen more just like it, plopped down like pumpkins in a field.
It was a Saturday afternoon, the day before Orthodox Easter, and a few feet away Luka’s cousin, Barbare, and her sisters were helping their mother clean the gravesite of the girls’ father, Vitaly. Their hope was that by the following evening a ball would be resting at Vitaly’s grave, too. The next 24 hours would decide that.
Every spring in the village of Shukhuti, in western Georgia, a single black, leather ball is sewn together to play Lelo Burti, a brutally physical folk game — a singular blend of a large-scale rugby match and an even larger street fight — that was once popular all around the region of Guria but is now only played here, once a year, on Orthodox Easter.
The ball is the only equipment and the eventual trophy. It is kept by the winning team and, immediately after the game, set down at the grave of their choice to honor that person’s memory.
A view Shukhuti: On game day, the village is split in two — Upper and Lower Shukhuti.CreditPete Kiehart for The New York Times
“The ball becomes a relic, a symbol of victory, respect,” said Vakhtang Torotadze, Vitaly’s older brother. “That is why we do our best.”
Vitaly Torotadze had died in 2017, at age 49. Vakhtang, 61, had stopped playing Lelo Burti years ago, he said, but he would be back in the scrum this year. He had, he said, been waiting two years for it.
A Powerful Prize
Lelo Burti was granted status as a “nonmaterial monument” of culture five years ago by the Georgian government. But once the actual game begins there is little ceremonial about it. It is a living, breathing, brutal pastime. It arouses genuine passions and profound injuries.
On game day, the village is split in two — Upper and Lower Shukhuti — and men from each half compete to carry the ball back to their side of town. Once that happens, the game ends. That is it.
There are no boundaries, no limit to the number of participants, no real tactics, and almost no rules. Women are not prohibited from playing but rarely do. The game typically lasts a couple hours. Sometimes it rages long into the night. One year it took less than 20 minutes.
The rewards may be modest — pride, and a dumpling-shaped ball as heavy as a cinder block — but they are cherished for generations.
In all corners of the world, of course, sporting victories are invoked as tributes to the deceased. In Shukhuti, such tributes have become the sole purpose of the game, and they can carry huge weight.
Seated in his living room last month, Vakhtang Chkhatarashvili, 54, praised his son, Mishiko, as a respectful young man. He enjoyed karate. He followed Georgian tradition, the way he was taught. On March 12, 2014, Mishiko was killed in a car accident. He had just turned 18.
Weeks later, the Lower Shukhuti team played the Lelo Burti game in Mishiko’s honor and won it with the help of several of his young friends, many of whom were playing for the first time.
“It was miraculous,” his father said, recalling the image of the men laying the ball at his son’s grave. “Maybe for an outsider, it’s just a ball. For me, it made me feel like I was levitating.”
The ball has rested at his son’s gravesite ever since, glisteningly clean on a sturdy metal stand.
“Taking care of the ball means taking care of my boy,” Chkhatarashvili said.
Balls from games stretching back decades remain scattered around the cemeteries of Shukhuti.
In a hillside cemetery above the village, a rubber ball has sat at the grave of Valiko Tsintsadze since 1982. His sister, Guliko Tsintsadze-Imnadze, 69, recalled that the tribute all those years ago had helped ease the pain of Valiko’s sudden death.
“Imagine,” she said, “so much time has passed, and the ball is still there.”
At the cemetery near the church sits another ball from almost two decades ago, now shriveled and brittle. On the gravestone next to it is inscribed a poem, in flowing Georgian script, written from a boy’s perspective:
Oh, dear God, why was I born at all?
Why did I deserve that tragic fate?
How can I calm you, my father?
How can I cure your grief, my mother?
But, I know you won’t forget me, dear Shukhuti!
Won’t forget a boy enshrouded in the cold of an early death.
You will utter: His departure was so untimely.
Our 10-year-old boy called Guram.
Shukhuti is a village where everyone knows everyone else, where cows stroll unchaperoned along the dirt roads, where traditions dictate daily life.
The night before this year’s game, more than a dozen men representing both sides of the village gathered for a supra — a Georgian feast, an endurance challenge in its own right — at the home of Malkhaz Oragvelidze, who has been responsible for crafting the Lelo Burti ball since 2011. The guests’ ages ranged from 17 to 74.
“We grew up watching our fathers, our uncles, play,” said Lasha Azaladze, 29, who would represent Lower Shukhuti. “It fits the character of a Georgian man, always ready for a battle.”
The men ate boundless quantities of meat, drank wine and chacha, the Georgian grape liquor, and raised toasts every few minutes: to Georgia and its occupied regions, to the deceased, to the sick, to the country’s women, to the next generation, to the past players of Lelo Burti and those who keep it alive today.
They toasted the memories of Vitaly Torotadze, who had died in 2017 at age 49 and was being honored by Upper Shukhuti this year, and to Aleko Dolidze, an engineer, who would receive the ball if Lower Shukhuti won the game.
Halfway through the night, the ball was tossed to Gia Imnaishvili, the tamada, or toastmaster, of the feast. In the morning, it would be filled with dirt to the weight of 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds) and blessed with wine by Father Saba, the local priest. For now it sat empty, so the men curved the stiff leather into a chalice and filled it with wine.
“Tonight we are brothers,” Imnaishvili said. “Tomorrow we fight. And tomorrow night we will be brothers again.”
He held the ball to his lips and drank for 10 seconds, until the wine was gone.
The Game Begins
At 5 o’clock the next afternoon, Father Saba left the church cradling the ball, slipped through a suffocating crowd to the dusty main road, took a small running start and heaved the orb into the air, detonating a horde of assembled players into action.
Bodies crashed together from all sides, like a mosh pit at a concert. The ball disappeared under a pile of flesh and swirling dirt.
The action that followed consisted of a single heaving scrum that at times exceeded 100 people. Periodically, the men of one team would signal frantically with their free hands for reinforcements — they had established possession, perhaps, or seen an opening — and those on the periphery would charge forward into their teammates’ backs.
The scrum crashed against the front of one of the village’s only stores, cracking the glass. It careened down the hill from the main road into a thicket of trees, scattering a crowd of spectators. It nearly toppled a roadside fence.
Men scrambled in and out of the action, gasping for air, reaching for water, shirts torn, shoes long gone. One player was carried into a waiting ambulance.
“You feel dizzy inside the scrum,” said Roma Oragvelidze, 29, a burly professional rugby player who was representing Lower Shukhuti. “You can’t breathe. But it’s strange: You become obsessed, and soon you want to jump back in.”
Just past 6 p.m., Upper Shukhuti established an advantage. Their surges grew longer, more inevitable. Pushing into the final stretch the players began to chant “Vitaly! Vitaly! Vitaly!” until, finally, they broke free and shepherded the ball across the creek that represented their goal line. An hour and 40 minutes after the game began, it was over.
The men of Upper Shukhuti marched immediately toward the cemetery, shouting and passing around the ball. Luka, Vitaly’s nephew, grabbed it, too, lifting it high above his head; puffing out his slender chest, the 11-year-old declared he would play next year. They reached Vitaly Torotadze’s grave and nestled the ball beneath his headstone. They made toasts and snapped pictures. His widow, Tatiana Ganja, silently placed her arm on his gravestone.
As she arose to set out a feast she had spent three days preparing, Vakhtang Torotadze, the shop owner, entered the graveyard, caressing a sore spot on his chest. He looked at once happy and weary. Someone suggested he must feel pleased to add another ball to the family plot. He shrugged.
“I wish,” he said, “we were not in a situation where my brother needed a ball.”
He took a drag on his cigarette and joined the growing feast.
Tamar Kalandadze contributed reporting.