The political symbolism of the Pshav (Northeast Georgian highland) mid-summer festival, then and now.

Kevin Tuite, Université de Montréal


On Friday 27 July, 2001, three Georgian friends and I headed northward out of the wilting 40C heat and oppressive pollution of Tbilisi toward the mountains [map of Georgia]. The road is paved and in relatively good condition, by post-Soviet Georgian standards, until one reaches the bridge over the Aragvi below the increasingly inefficient hydroelectric station at Zhinvali. As we knew from previous visits to the region, and as had been confirmed a little over a week earlier, asphalt becomes progressively more rare, and potholes more frequent, the further one penetrates the highland districts of northeast Georgia. Once past the Zhinvali bridge, however, a surprising sight greeted us: a level road surface, its pits and fissures having been filled in by road crews just a day or two earlier. We enjoyed an uncommonly smooth ride for several miles along the right-hand bank of the Aragvi, as far as the juncture with the road leading to Chargali. Scarcely two yards past the Chargali turnoff, the left front tire of our jeep hit a monstrous pothole, immediately followed by a similar incident involving the right front tire, and so on without respite until we arrived at our habitual campsite at the entrance to the Matura valley below Gogolaurta. The sudden appearance and equally abrupt disappearance of recent (and short-lived) road improvements was not really a surprise to us. We knew that Chargali, one of the southernmost Pshav villages, was the site, on the following day (28 July) of "Vazhaoba", a state-sponsored festival founded in Soviet times in honor of the poet and writer Vazha-Pshavela. Government officials and Writers' Union members would be transported by car and bus to what was once Vazha's home, subsequently converted into a "house museum", to attend speeches and poetry readings in honor of this remarkable individual from what was, 140 years ago, an undeveloped, little-known and nearly inaccessible corner of Tsarist Georgia. The compound suffix ob-a, added to a proper noun, is a common means in Georgian to derive the name of a festival in honor of a sanctified person or place. Several such festivals bear the names of writers, significantly, those who are routinely referred to, even in scholarly discourse, by their first names only: Iliaoba in commemoration of Ilia Ch'ach'avadze (on August 2nd, now a national holiday), Shotaoba in honor of Shota Rustaveli (in Iq'alto, site of a medieval academy where Rustaveli is believed to have studied). The origin and subsequent evolution of these festivals under the various regimes of Soviet and post-Soviet Georgia, with their different manners of appropriating and representing great names from the pre-Soviet past, is a fascinating theme to explore, but one which would take us too far off track. Suffice it to say that Vazha's reputation could not save his son from execution as an anti-Bolshevik insurrectionist in 1924, yet forty years later he merited a house-museum and a holiday celebrated on the anniversary of his birth (14 July OS (= 27 July), 1861), which happens to coincide with the final segment of the Pshav-Xevsur mid-summer festival known under the names of Seroba, Saghmurtoba and Atengena.


The ceremonial calendar of the principal communes of Pshavi and of the central shrine complex of Lasharis Jvari and Tamar-Ghele has been described in considerable detail in accounts from the first half of the 20th century collected by S. Mak'alatia [1985], A. Ochiauri [1991] and V. Bardavelidze [1974]. Despite the numerous infrastructural changes of the Soviet period (roads, schools, electricity [in some areas]), the campaign against "harmful" beliefs and practices, and the drastic decline of the highland population,[1] certain annual festivals continued to be performed through the 20th century until the present day, through the offices of traditional celebrants (qevisberni), selected and trained in much the same manner as in pre-Soviet times. Most of the qevisberni still active are in their 60's or older; only a handful appear to be under 50 years of age.


Since 1996, my Georgian colleagues (P'aat'a Buxrashvili, Romanoz Dolidze, Berucha Nik'olaishvili) and I have been visiting Pshav-Xevsureti each July at festival time, with the goal of observing and documenting this aspect of highland syncretic religious practice in the turbulent context of post-Soviet (and post-post-Soviet) Georgia. I will begin with an overview of the traditional politico-religious organization of Pshavi, and its symbolization in the Seroba-Atengena cycle. I will then summarize the common features of the festivals we have observed in the communities of Shuapxo, Gogolaurta and Matura. Finally, the special case of the ceremonies at Lasharis Jvari and Tamar-Ghele will be compared and contrasted with those of the individual communes. Deprived of the pivotal political, organizational and juridical functions they fulfilled a century ago, and lacking a local community or "parish" of their own, these shrines appear to be undergoing a reappropriation and re-symbolization by local political and cultural activists, that is in some ways comparable to the ritual uses of Vazha's house-museum in Chargali.


I. The traditional politico-religious organization of Pshavi.

According to a document dated 1789, "the villages of the Pshav valley [pshavis qevis sopelni] are these: Uk'ana-Pshavi, Aqadi, C'itelaurta, Qoshara, C'icho [sic], Muku, Matura, Gogolaurta, Cabaurta, Udzilaurta, Shuapxo" [Mak'alatia 1985: 69]. Each of the eleven named villages can in fact be identified as the seat of a temi, or commune [see map].[2] A temi normally comprises several hamlets and a number of named kin-groups of differing genealogical depth (mama, sadzmo, gvari) [Bardavelidze 1974: 116], but shares one (or more) communal sanctuary [satemo xat'i], at which the members of the commune gather and offer sacrifices at major festivals. In recent papers [Tuite 1999, ms.], I have argued, building upon the work of Bardavelidze [1960] in particular, that even though medieval Pshavi and Xevsureti were never integrated into the feudal socio-political regime of lowland Georgia, nor fully converted to Georgian Orthodoxy, both institutions — feudalism and Christianity — exerted a powerful influence on the evolution of Pshav-Xevsur indigenous religion. Previous analyses of Georgian highland religious syncretism have employed what one might call an archeological model, with sharply distinct chronological levels: either an ancient paganism overlain by the trappings of Orthodoxy [e.g. Bardavelidze 1957], or a thoroughly Christianized highland population cut off from the lowland centers of political and religious authority by a long succession of wars and invasions from the east, whereupon they drifted into an increasingly paganized folk Orthodoxy [K'ik'nadze 1996; reviewed by Tuite 1996]. I propose instead that the religious system observed by 19th-c. ethnographers is the outcome of a gradual and dynamic process of political and religious transformation (or reformation), simultaneously driven by, and contributing to, the emergence of a new "theocratic" [Bardavelidze 1957: 34-36] elite in Pxovi, the medieval province encompassing Pshavi and Xevsureti. The primary sources of concepts and symbols in this transformative process are Orthodoxy and feudalism. The latter system provided notions of hierarchy, lend tenure, labor and military obligations, and lord-vassal interdependency, yet most of this politico-economic armature remained nearly invisible. Unlike Upper and Lower Svanetia, and the neighboring districts of Mtiuleti and Tusheti, Pxovi had no resident aristocracy, nor fiefdoms in the usual sense of the word. Ritual and economic activity was informed by what I have called "imagined feudalism". In Pxovian religious thought, rank is inversely correlated with fleshliness. At the top of the feudal pyramid is God the "director" or "creator" [morige ghmerti, dambadebeli], who never manifests himself, and to whom no shrine is dedicated. Beneath him are the various "children of God" [xvtishvilni], some of which were created divine, whereas others are former humans [naqorcivlarni] elevated by God to divine status in return for exceptional heroism " [Mak'alatia 1985: 191; Ochiauri 1991: 14, 95, 128-9, 155]. Normally invisible, the xvtishvilni can appear to selected mortals as doves or flaming birds. Like an earthly monarch, God granted "fiefs" to the xvtishvilni, comprising both the territory on which their shrines are to be built, and the local human population, which represents itself as the "vassals" or "serfs" [q'mani] of their supernatural "overlord" [bat'oni]. Functioning as intermediaries between the xvtishvilni and their serfs are priests [qevisberi, qucesi] and oracles [kadagi, mk'adre], which have been recruited by the communal deity, typically through dreams and visions, but within certain lineages only. Their office requires them to scrupulously maintain a high level of purity, through regular purifications (some of which employ the blood of a freshly-sacrificed ram or bull), the abstention from certain foods, and avoidance of sources of impurity, of which one of the most potent manifestations is women's blood flow from childbirth or menstruation. The priests and oracles represent their communities to the xvtishvilni and make known the wishes of the latter to the former. The priests assure that the complex liturgical calendar, loosely based on that of the Orthodox Church, is followed, and that the various feast-days, fasts, ceremonies and sacrifices are correctly performed. I am becoming convinced that the emergence of semi-hereditary religious specialists, and the remarkably sophisticated and internally consistent structure of Pxovian traditional religion are interlinked phenomena. However it was that the appropriation and reworking of lowland political and religious concepts began, the growing complexity and thorough-going systematicity of Pxovian theology required longer apprenticeship, which favored transmission within families, and which contributed in turn, I believe, to continued elaboration of the system and a growing gap between specialist and non-specialist religious knowledge.


II. The political symbolism of Seroba.

As described in the late-19th & early-20th c. ethnographic materials collected by Ochiauri and Bardavelidze, the property of most Pshav communes included vineyards in the Kakhetian lowlands near Axmet'a, allegedly granted to the Pshav sanctuaries by the Georgian king in return for crucial military aid provided by the mountaineers in the defense of eastern Georgia against Persian invaders. Yet in the texts, local informants consistently affirm that the xat'i (the sanctuary and its resident divinity), rather than the human community, owned these vineyards; e.g. Qosharis dzelis angelozs axmet'ashi hkonda venaxi "Qoshara's Angel of the Wood had vineyards in Axmet'a"; K'op'alas venaxi axmet'ashi sam adgilas hkonda "K'op'ala had vineyards in three places by Axmet'a" [Ochiauri 1991]. Several days before Seroba, the qevisberi, bearing the drosha (banner) of the communal sanctuary, descended to the vineyards to collect "payment" in the form of wine (k'uluxi). The wine thus collected — the members of Gogolaurta commune once brought 60 horse packloads (approx 6000 kg!) of wine per year back to the highlands [Bardavelidze 1974: 123-4] — was shared out at festivals throughout the year, but the greatest quantities were imbibed at Seroba, when the men of the community and their guests are invited to drank the so-called saq'eino ("for the Khan"). Each drinker presents an offering to the shrine, then gets down on his hands and knees to drink from a large bowl placed on a slate slab in front of the sanctuary. The saq'eino is drunk in commemoration of the p'ir-oplianni, which, despite its undignified-sounding English translation "sweaty-faces", refers to all those who died in battle fighting under the banner of Lasharis Jvari. It is also during Seroba that new male and female members are admitted to membership in the commune (xat'shi gaq'vana/mibareba "taking/entrusting to the shrine"), and in many localities competitive games, such as horse racing (doghi) and target-shooting (ghabaqi), also take place.


A couple of the more remote Pshav communes — Zurabault and C'itelaurt — are not known to have possessed vineyards. The mid-summer festival is called Atengena (the same name as in Xevsureti) in these localities, after the Orthodox martyr St. Athenogene, whose feast is celebrated on July 16 OS (= 29th). In Zurabault temi, located at the head of the Matur-Qevi valley about five miles from the nearest road, the mid-summer festival is spread over nearly a week, during which the qevisberi, bearing the drosha, visits a succession of mountain-top shrines (Saq'ach'is svet'is angelozi, Arq'ovnis C'm. Giorgi, Mikelis ek'lesia), and then Mariam-C'mida, where the women's presentation takes place. At C'itelaurta, the local xvtishvili, invoked under the name of K'ot'ias C'm. Giorgi ("St. George of K'ot'ia"), is believed to be the sworn brother (modzme) of another St. George, who presides over the neighboring commune of Uk'ana-Pshavi (Giorgi c'q'arostauli "George of the fountainhead"). After celebrating Atengena at Uk'ana-Pshavi, the banner-bearing tavqevisberi (chief priest) leads the people to the mountain shrine of K'ot'ias C'm. Giorgi [Bardavelidze 1974: 188-9].


The major segments of the mid-summer festival are marked by the movements of the tavqevisberi, bearing the banner. Before taking up the drosha, he enters the bell-tower (sazare) within which, or next to which, the drosha is set, and rings the bell, whereupon all those within earshot face the bell-tower and make the sign of the cross (p'ir-jvars ic'eren, which for those of the older generations who lived most of their lives in the mountains, and who rarely, if ever, attended an Orthodox liturgy, typically takes the form of a zigzag or circular movement of the right hand in front of the chest). When the chief priest takes up the banner at the beginning and end of each day's festivities at the shrine, the men sing and dance the perxuli, a round dance which, Charachidzé argues, symbolizes the integrity and continuity of the visible and invisible members of the commune [1968: 710-713]. In fact, the perxuli is but one of a series of ritual gestures of circling or circumambulation, typically performed thrice in a counterclockwise (rightward) direction, which are performed during Seroba. Triple counterclockwise circles are performed during the presentation ceremonies for both sexes, and at the beginning and end of the horse race. The significance of the triple circle in the context of Seroba should be interpreted, I believe, in the light of similar movements on other occasions marking an individual's entry or departure from a community or kin-group. On the occasion of her wedding, a woman circles the hearth-chain of her parents' home three times, and then does the same upon her arrival in the home of her husband's family, to symbolize her leave-taking from the household of her birth, and her transfer to that of her husband, where she will henceforth reside [Grigolia 1939: 73]. In my view the widespread Georgian practice of circling of the room where a person died three times while carrying the coffin, performed by the pallbearers before taking the body to the cemetery, has the same underlying significance, marking the departure of a newly-deceased person from his or her family in this world, to subsequently take up residence in the world of the dead souls (suleti).


The symbolism and terminology of Seroba is heavily political: The qevisberi, bearing the shrine's banner, collects tribute from lowland vineyards granted to the invisible overlord he serves by the king (in this case, a human one). The k'uluxi is drunk by the vassals on all fours, in a posture of submission, before the xat'i, in commemoration of those who gave their lives in battle in the service of the chief Pshav shrine, Lasharis Jvari. In the communes of Zurabaulta and C'itelaurta, which did not possess vineyards, the processions of the priest and banner symbolize the imagined political relations between local xvtishvilni: the dependency of Matura's peripheral mountain sanctuaries (and their resident xvtishvilni) on the central satemo xat'i of the Archangel, and the fraternal alliance between neighboring St. Georges in the upper corner of Pshavi.


Boys born into the commune are anointed as new vassals, with the blood of a ram or bull presented by their fathers, at the main shrine, while girls and in-marrying brides are presented (with bloodless offerings of bread, wine and coins) in a separate ceremony. In some communes, the women's and girls' xat'shi gaq'vana is performed at the shrine of the "Mother of God" (ghvtismshobeli), the female auxiliary, in a sense, of the communal xvtishvili. In the course of the mid-summer festival, the core notions of land tenure, hierarchy, reciprocal obligations between overlord and vassals — protection and use of the land in exchange for fealty, labor, a share of the produce and military service — which the early medieval Pxovians appropriated from lowland politico-economic thought, and projected onto the cosmological plane, are made manifest and reinforced through ritual. The frequent performance of triple counterclockwise circles and circumambulations, a gesture known in all corners of Georgia, further emphasizes the sense of belonging to a community, more precisely, a community conceived as an extended kin-group.


III. The mid-summer festival in the Pshav communes today.

In many important respects, the mid-summer festivities I observed in the past six years resemble those described by ethnographers a century ago. Ceremonial activities and sacrifices in Udzilaurta, Kist'aurta, Goglaurta and Zurabaulta temebi are still supervised by a tavqevisberi over 60 years old, the direct descendant of the previous holder of this office in each commune, assisted by one to three subordinate qevisberni. Several of these men have described to me how they received their vocations; in each case, the future priest was relatively young, in some instances still an adolescent, and the message was made manifest through dreams or visions experienced while suffering from a delirium-producing illness. A significant component of all such narratives that I have collected is the candidate's obstinate refusal to accept his vocation, until a succession of misfortunes and even deaths of loved ones broke his will. One tavqevisberi, for example, blamed the loss of several close relatives in battle during World War II to his stubborn, and ultimately futile, resistance to the xat'i's call to service.


According to my colleague Romanoz Dolidze, the mid-summer festivals in the various Pshav communes are held in the sequence shown here since the 1970's, as we observed in the period 1996-2001; this sequence is consistent with the dates given by Mak'alatia forty years before then.[3] The feast of the apostle Peter and Paul (P'et're-P'avloba, 29 June OS = 12 July) marks the end of a fast lasting two to six weeks, during which the qevisberni prepare themselves for Seroba by purification and the avoidance of the proximity of women and other potential sources of pollution (one tavqevisberi told me that he will not ride in any bus or truck at the time, for fear that it might once have been used to transport menstruating women or pigs). Several outlying villages affiliated with the Gogolaurt commune, located near Magharosk'ari or in the upper reaches of Xorxis xeoba, hold their festivals on P'et're-P'avloba (Acha-kveli in Xorxis xeoba, C'verovani, Qmalaoba, Maghac'ali above Gomec'ari). On the following Sunday, Saghmurtoba is celebrated at Kmodis Gori above the village of Gogolaurta, followed by the all-Pshav festivals at Lasharis-Jvari (Monday) and Tamar-Ghele (Tuesday). After a rest day, the commune of Kist'aurta at Shuapxo holds its Seroba, beginning at the nearby shrine of Iaqsari, and ending with a procession to the mountain shrine of K'arat'e overlooking the village Araxija on the following Sunday [Bardavelidze 1974: 75]. Since the death of the celebrated tavqevisberi Bich'uri Badrishvili (c. 1885-1980), who presided at Iaqsari for most of the 20th century, members of his clan have gathered at his gravesite for a commemorative ceremony after the end of the communal festival. On this same weekend, the Xevsur communes celebrate their Atengenoba, followed by a morning service and women's blood-purification (ganatvla) at Xaxmat'is Jvari the following Monday. The final sequence of mid-summer festivals begins two or three days later, on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. The communes of Udzilaurt, Zurabault, Gogoch'urt, Ch'ichoelt, and the joint festival of Uk'ana-Pshavelt and C'itelaurt temebi take place over four or more days, with a rest day on Friday. These feature visits to several sanctuaries within each commune, including a mountain-top shrine (samto salocavi), and a shrine to a female divinity known as Holy Mary (Mariam-C'mida) or the Mother of God (Deda-Ghvtismshobeli), where the women's presentation ceremony is held.


The itineraries of two tavqevisberni during Seroba are summarized here (Gogolaurt) and here (Udzilaurt) . There are obvious differences between them: The Gogolaurt festival lasts one day, at the beginning of the mid-summer cycle, whereas the four-day Udzilaurt festival comes at the end [see Power-Point presentation of the 1997 summer festival at Udzilaurta]. In 1999 the festivities at Gogolaurt began with a special gathering of the Baghiauri clan (of which the tavqevisberi is the head) to present offerings and the sacrifice of a ram and bull at their family shrine next to the ruined fortress Jigrault-Cixe. This ceremony only takes every ten years or so, and is intended to expiate the treacherous slaying, alleged to have occurred many generations earlier, of the Ingush artisan who built the fortress. The complex Seroba festival at Udzilaurt begins with the commemoration of a mythic stone-throwing contest between the divinized hero K'op'ala and man-eating ogres (devebi), who once resided at Cixetgori across the Ak'usho valley from Iremtk'alo mountain. The contest ended when K'op'ala, standing at the site of the sanctuary atop Iremtk'alo, slung a gigantic boulder across the valley to Cixetgori, where it crushed the ogres' fortress and put them to flight. For his strength and valor in defeating the devebi, thereby making the territory of Pshavi safe for human habitation, K'op'ala and his companions Iaqsari and P'irkushi were transformed into xvtishvilni by God, and each was granted a fief (saq'mo) in Pshavi: Udzilaurt, Kist'aurt and Goderdzault communes.


Although the Pshav communes were dispossessed of their Axmet'a vineyards decades ago, the saq'eino is still drunk at Udzilaurt (using beer specially brewed for the occasion) and Kist'aurta (using wine contributed by commune members living in the lowlands). At Gogolaurt, the p'iroplianni are commemorated just before the qevisberi leads the procession back down from Kmodis Gori. The presentation of new members of both sexes still occurs at all of the communes I have visited, and the doghi continues to take place atop Iremtk'alo. The majority of those in attendance now live all or most of the year outside of their ancestral village. The shrine personnel are more likely to maintain their primary residence in the highlands, but many spend at least the winter months with their herds at lower altitudes. Nonetheless, those qevisberni with whom I have spoken insist on maintaining traditional norms of purity. Two years ago at Kmodis Gori, I witnessed the preparation of a mixture of wine and the blood of a freshly-killed ram, which was given to Xvtiso Baiashvili, an auxiliary xevisberi of Gogolaurt commune, to sprinkle around his lowland residence, where the risk of pollution is considered to be higher than in the mountains.


The mid-summer festivals of Udzilaurt, Kist'aurt and Gogolaurt communes draw upwards of a hundred people in recent years. Even in the remote commune of Zurabault, at the head of the Matura valley about a two-hour hike from the nearest road, and with a permanent population of two households, 70-80 people showed up at Atengena last year. In 2001, five bulls, one calf and 17 sheep were sacrificed at Kmodis Gori, about the same number as in 1999, and four boys and seven girls and women were presented to the shrine. Most of the new members do not live in the highlands, and in some cases the ritual of affiliate with their ancestral community is evidently undertaken at the urging of their parents or grandparents. Overall, the atmosphere on these occasions is celebratory and relatively light-hearted; for many of the lowlanders, especially the younger ones, it appears to be on the order of a camping trip and picnic in the mountains. Outsiders tend to be few, and tend to come as guests of commune members, or through introduction to the presiding qevisberi (as was the case with us during our initial visits to Pshavi).[4] The tavqevisberni watch over the proceedings in a gentle, grandfatherly way, giving the necessary instructions to lowlanders unfamiliar with the details of what to offer when and where, but never (at least not in my presence) losing their temper. One could say that they portray, in a manner that seems completely natural and unforced, the ideal mountaineer of earlier times: sincere, respectful of tradition, punctilious in fulfilling their responsibilities to the human and supernatural communities, showing no evidence of self-interest or self-importance. Their authority in the eyes of the community is reinforced by their eloquence and impressive memorized repertoire of prayers, invocations and legends, and also by their physical appearance and upright bearing, their ability to walk long distances on mountainous terrain, and drink wine, beer and home-brewed vodka by the liter without succumbing to fatigue or tipsiness. As unscientific as it may appear to say this, the vocation of qevisberi is marked by a charisma which sets them apart from other members of their communes.


IV. The special case of Lasharis-Jvari.


If K'op'ala, Iaqsari, the Archangel and the several St. Georges were imagined as the overlords of individual communes, Lashari and his "sworn-sister" [mode] Tamar were thought to rule over the entire province of Pshavi and its population, who referred to themselves collectively as the vassals of Lasharis Jvari.[5] Lasharis-Jvari was addressed as the qelmc'ipe (monarch) of all Pshavians, as though he were a prince or minor king, subordinate to God the supreme ruler, but superior to the other nobles. The sanctuary complexes of Lasharis-Jvari and Tamar-Ghele, along with the minor shrines of Sak'virao and Damast'e, are places of worship and sacrifice for all Pshavians. The four all-Pshav shrines were invoked for protection from all manner of danger to the province and its residents: enemies (Lashari), illness (Tamar under her epithet "Doctor-Queen" [Akim-dedopali]), famine, hail and bad weather (Sak'virao and Damast'e).


As Pshavi's central shrine, Lasharis-Jvari had a number of features and functions which marked it as a  which distinguished it from all other xat'ebi. Each year, on the Sunday following Easter, the qevisberni from all eleven (or twelve) communes, bearing their banners, assembled at Lasharis-Jvari for a council [bch'eqevisberta sabch'o] to debate matters of concern to the people of Pshavi. The Seroba festival at Lasharis-Jvari (commonly called Lasharoba) was likely attended by people from throughout the province, who camped out in designated areas: each of the communes had its own sajare (open-air gathering place) on Qmel-gora close to Lasharis-Jvari. Lasharoba also drew many Georgians from neighboring districts and even Kist'ebi (the local term for Chechens and Ingush), who came to offer sacrifices and pray for aid from the powerful warrior-divinity Lashara and the healing Queen-doctor Tamar. Another indication of the regional influence of the Pshav central shrine was the periodic procession of its qevisberi, banner in hand, in the Xevsur valley of Ardot'i (across a mountain ridge to the north), and as far as Gudamaq'ari to the west and Tusheti in the east, to collect "tribute" [begara], in the form of livestock, beer and money, for Lasharis-Jvari. [Mak'alatia 1985: 218]. Finally, individuals hoping for healing from a severe illness — either their own or their child's — would put on a yoke or chain as a sign of enslavement to the shrine [xat'is monoba]. One particularly dramatic manner of signaling this oath was for the "slave" to put the extremely heavy "Jalabauri chain" — a massive iron chain still to be seen at the shrine — around his or her neck, and circle the candle-tower [sasantle k'oshk'i] on all fours [Bardavelidze 1974: 24].


All of this changed with the Sovietization of the Georgian highlands. Lasharis-Jvari lost its vineyards in Kakheti, and the sworn virgins who lived like nuns near Tamar-Ghele and tended its herds of cattle were sent to work on collective farms. The council of Pshavian qevisberni no longer met, and attendance dropped at Lasharoba.[6] Some years later the qevisberi in office at Lasharis-Jvari died, and no successor appeared. The tavqevisberi at Kist'aurt commune, the experienced and highly respected Bich'uri Badrishvili, filled in periodically at Lasharis-Jvari and Tamar-Ghele until his death in 1980. After a vacancy of over a decade, a candidate finally stepped forward in the early 1990's: Beglar Dzebniauri, a lowland Pshavian who had married a woman from Qoshara, a village 2-3 kilometers downriver from Qmelgora, the site of Lasharis-Jvari. Dzebniauri declared that he had learned of his vocation in a dream, and some time later began officiating at both Lasharis-Jvari and Tamar-Ghele.


I have attended Lasharoba in 1997, 2000 and 2001, and Gheleoba (the festival at Tamar-Ghele the following day) in 2001 [see slide show]. From the very first impression I was struck by the atmosphere at Lasharis-Jvari, which was far less jovial and festive than at the communal shrines. Several factors appear to contribute to this: The qevisberi, who appears to be in his forties, lacks the charisma of his older colleagues at Gogolaurt and Udzilaurt — to say nothing of the near-legendary Bich'uri Badrishvili — nor does he show any signs of possessing the wealth of traditional knowledge one expects a qevisberi to have. No doubt his relative youth and lack of experience are a disadvantage, as well as his having grown up outside of Pshavi. The attendance at Lasharoba in recent years is far more heterogenous, and far less unified, than at the local celebrations of Seroba. Many of those who offer sacrifices come from Qoshara or other nearby villages, and are neighbors or relatives of Dzebniauri's wife's family. In addition, some Pshavians from further away attend, including qevisberni from Chargali and Zurabault. Last year we encountered an excursion group of university students from Tbilisi, who took the bus as far as Shuapxo, then hiked the remaining 10 kilometres or so to the campsite at the foot of Qmelgori. On several occasions I have noticed men wearing the traditional Caucasian choxa — a long-sleeved knee-length overcoat with rifle-cartridge pockets sown across the chest —, which I have never seen at the commune festivals. Last year, Dzebniauri himself donned the choxa for Lasharoba, as did two martial-arts (xridoli) instructors from Tbilisi, who have been traveling about the highlands collecting information about traditional weapons and self-defense training. No rituals were performed which might have fostered a sense of unity among this diverse assemblage of groups: locals, city-dwellers visiting a holy place celebrated in folklore, individuals consciously displaying their attachment to national traditions, which the mountains are believe to conserve more faithfully than the lowland cities. Since Lasharis-Jvari and Tamar-Ghele never had a parish of their own, the presentation ceremony (xat'shi gaq'vana) was not known to have been performed here. On the other hand, descriptions of Lasharoba and Gheleoba from earlier times mention other events which encouraged group participation, such as the drinking of the saq'eino, the perquli round-dance, and processions led by the qevisberi bearing the drosha.

One curious occurrence, which I noted during Lasharoba in 2000, brought home to me the lack of solidarity among the different constituencies in attendance. While Dzebniauri was lighting candles at the sasantle-k'oshk'i, a man, clearly not Georgian, came up the path to the shrine bearing a video camera. With one eye on the view-finder, and without speaking a word to anyone, he made his way through the crowd all the way up to where the qevisberi stood, and began filming his activities from 2-3 feet away. Dzebnaiuri turned and looked at him with a startled, then somewhat annoyed, expression, but said nothing. The foreigner, filming silently all the way, then worked his way back through the crowd and left by the way he had come. It is difficult to imagine a similar occurrence at one of the communal festivals. I will give one example by way of parallel: In 1996, a Canadian journalist and amateur mountain-climber found his way to the summit of Iremtk'alo the day before Seroba. Although he spoke no Georgian or Russian, people immediately greeted him and attempted to communicate in whatever bits of West European languages they had at hand. By the time we arrived a few hours later, the Canadian had already been presented to the qevisberi (Ioseb K'och'lishvili), and made to feel welcome as a guest of the commune. No such contact was attempted with the camera-wielding foreigner at Lasharoba, nor for that matter with any of the numerous outsiders, Georgian or not, who were evidently not known to the qevisberi or other locals.

In June 2000 I was informed by Romanoz Dolidze, who has done extensive amateur ethnographic work in Pshav-Xevsureti since the 1970's, that restoration work was to be undertaken at Lasharis-Jvari. On Sunday, 26 June, we met Erak'le Gogolauri, a Pshavian from Magharosk'ari, a well-known regional poet and editor of the journal P'irimze, which publishes articles on the folklore and history of Pshav-Xevsureti, and poems and short stories by local writers. At his initiative, and largely with funds from his own pocket, a project was launched to restore ruined or damaged buildings on the territory of Lasharis-Jvari. He had come to Lasharis-Jvari with a lamb to be sacrificed there by Pilip'e Baghiauri, the qevisberi of Erak'le's ancestral commune. The lamb was slaughtered on the edge of a stone receptacle set in the ground to receive the blood of sacrificed animals. After Pilip'e finished his invocation of the xvtishvilni to bless the project, Erak'le and the construction workers drank toasts and pledged to do their work faithfully, begging the shrine not to be angry should they make any unintentional mistakes. By the time Lasharoba was held, three weeks later, the beer-storage cabin (salude) had been rebuilt, and was consecrated by Beglar Dzebniauri with the blood of a sacrifice. On hand for the occasion were the government administrators for the two Pshav districts, Magharosk'ari and Shuapxo-Uk'anapshavi, the latter of which is the grandson of Bich'uri Badrishvili. While attending Lasharoba we were pieces of an ancient cross, with an Old Georgian inscription apparently dating from no later than the 14th century, which the builders had found while working at the site.


A year later, at last year's Lasharoba, restoration work had progressed considerably. The two Christian churches in the central complex, one at Lasharis-Jvari and the other at Tamar-Ghele, had been furnished with new tin roofs (the second of these was paid for by another grandson of Bich'uri). Gogolauri's team had shored up the foundations of the old bell tower at Lasharis-Jvari, and was in the process of reconstructing the hall where the councils of tavqevisberni once took place. The medieval crucifix found the year before has been restored and mounted on a staff, and was displayed alongside other items of the shrine's inventory. In addition to the above, all done through the efforts of volunteers without government support, Pshavians have donated a new banner to Lasharis-Jvari, in the form of a flag with the image of St George on one side, and on the other, a large cross, representing Lasharis-Jvari, surrounded by fifteen smaller crosses. These latter, I was told, symbolize the fifteen original communes of Pshavi.[7] Although commune members occasionally donate drinking vessels and other items to local shrines, and repair work is sporadically done on bell-tpwers and candle altars, I have heard of no large-scale undertakings comparable to those at the central shrines. Why is it, one might ask, that E. Gogolauri, whose ancestors — as his name indicates — belonged to Gogolaurt, and Guram Badrishvili, whose grandfather was tavqevisberi at Kist'urta, contributed to building projects at Lasharis-Jvari and Tamar-Ghele, rather than at their respective communes?


It appears to me that we are witnessing the beginning of a new phase in the history of Pshav religion. Unlike most other Georgian provinces, such as Svaneti for example, in Pshavi and Xevsureti, the majority of religious practices were performed in the presence of the community, rather than in private or within the household. Stripped of their earlier functions in the course of the 20th c., Lasharis-Jvari, and to a lesser degree Tamar-Ghele, are acquiring new functions at the dawn of the 21st. The lack of communes of their own, and the young, inexperienced qevisberi (himself somewhat of a outsider), who tends not to inquire into the presence of strangers at his shrine, have left the central shrines open to symbolic appropriation by a diverse range of groups and individuals, who display their attachment to the values projected onto Lasharoba in front of a generalized Georgian public, rather than a public imagined as an extended kin group of ultimately local origin, unified by shallow genealogy rather than the more abstract ideologically-informed attribute of Georgianness.

I will conclude with a few observations which might prove indicative of the new political uses to which 
Lasharis-Jvari will be put. In the late 1980's, the dissident leaders Zviad Gamsaxurdia and Merab K'ost'ava made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Lashari near Axmet'a. This is a satellite of the Lasharis-Jvari in Pshavi, established by Pshavians residing in the Iori Valley southeast of Pshavi [Bardavelidze 1941]. Although both activists had their roots in western Georgia (Mingrelia), they chose this spot to make an oath, in front of their followers, to fight for the independance of Georgia, a dream that was in fact accomplished a few years later. During the short-lived Gamsaxurdia presidency of 1991-1992, symbols from Georgian history were prominently displayed, St. George in particular, and also a large depiction of the mythic hero Amirani in the belly of a dragon, which was on view in front of the presidential palace. With the return of Shevardnadze, such images are less evident, but nonetheless called upon when expedient. (Shevardnadze himself took the name Giorgi when he was baptized after the fall of the USSR, and an icon of his new patron saint can be seen in photos of him in his office). As I mentioned earlier, the two administrators (gamgeblebi) of Pshavi appear regularly at Lasharoba. Will other politicians and political activists  follow them there? Will the presentation of an offering to the warrior deity Lashari become, for certain types of politicians anyway,  a public display of loyalty to a particular conception of the Georgian nation (and a particular agenda for restoring it), as — to take a West European example — the annual visits  to the statue of Joan of Arc by representatives of the extreme-right Front National in Paris?

Any such appropriations of Lasharis-Jvari — or any other Pshav-Xevsurian sanctuary, for that matter — must accommodate itself to one capital fact: the gender-exclusion rule, to which I referred earlier, is still rigidly enforced. The qevisberni bear chief responsability for assuring that all present respect the norms, but other members of the group will assist in enforcing compliance. For the most part, this consists of little more than quick gestures or oral instructions to stand in a certain place,  remove one's hat, etc.  In such a context, would it ever be possible for a woman to participate to the same degree as a man in a political event at Lasharis-Jvari ? Could she swear an oath as Gamsaxurdia and K'ost'ava did, or present an animal to be sacrificed and drink a toast, as Erak'le Gogolauri did? In post-post-Soviet Georgia, where women are still underrepresented in high government offices, but where one woman — Nino Burjanadze — has recently been named Chairperson of Parliament, will such symbolically-charged sites as Lasharis-Jvari be eventually drawn into the struggle for gender equality, or will they be used, like men-only clubs and lodges, as refuges for the old order? It is difficult to tell at this point. At Iremtk'alo in 1997, I recall an older man upbraiding an adolescent boy who sat on the flat slate slab, on which the saq'eino was to be drunk later that day, with the sarcastic question "Rusi xar?!" (Are you a Russian?). For some of today's Georgians, at least, conformity to traditional norms is not only an obligation imposed on all vassals of Lasharis-Jvari, but an outward sign of Georgianness itself.



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[1] The population of Pshavi was about 3400 in the mid-19th c. [Eristov 1853], and 2500 in the 1930's [Mak'alatia 1985: 15]. According to the administrator [gamgebeli] of Shuapxo-Uk'anapshavi district, which covers the territory of the traditional eleven communes, in 2000 only 60 households were registered in the district, many of whom live elsewhere most of the year.

[2] The belief is widely shared, by ethnographers as much as the highlanders themselves, that the communes were originally twelve in number, like the tribes of Israel or Christ's apostles. Unfortunately, there is little agreement as to he identity of the twelfth temi. In his list of the twelve communes, Vazha-Pshavela included Misriani clan, which once lived near the Tamar-Ghele sanctuary, and from which the priests serving at that shrine were drawn [Vazha-Pshavela 1886/1994: 82; Bardavelidze 1974: 23]. A. Ochiauri believed it was the Xevsur village Qaqabo, accessible from Matura via a mountain pass, representatives of which swore fealty at Lasharis-Jvari [Ochiauri 1991: 295-6]. A third opinion was expressed by Mak'alatia, according to whom the comparatively recently-founded settlement of Chargali, originally a satellite of Gogolaurt temi, joined the original eleven as twelfth commune [Mak'alatia 1985: 68].

[3] Mak'alatia [1985: 202-218] specifies that the festival at Gogolaurt took place on 17 July (NS), followed by Lasharoba on the 18th and 19th. The ceremony at Cixet-gori, with which the Udzilaurt festival begins, took place on the 28th. Elsewhere in the text he mentions attending Seroba at Lasharis-Jvari in 1932; in that year, 17 July fell on a Sunday, and the 28th on a Thursday.

[4] It should be noted that the mainstream Georgian media takes almost no interest in Pshavi and its festivals. In 1997 a crew from the national TV studio, accompanied by the folklorist Z. K'ik'nadze, filmed the Udzilaurt cycle, but their footage has yet to broadcast, to my knowledge. Recent coverage is limited to a couple of articles and short stories by the journalist Elguja Lebanidze, from the newspaper Sakartvelos Resp'ublik'a, who attended the Gogolaurt festival in 2000 at the invitation of a commune member, and a couple of televised interviews with this writer, during which our ethnographic work in the northeast Georgian highlands was briefly discussed. Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the Tbilisi Georgians whom I have told about this research are surprised to learn that these ceremonies still occur; they generally believe that traditional highland religious practices disappeared during the Soviet period.

[5] These supernatural siblings take their names from historical personages who were, in fact, mother and son: Queen Tamar (reigned 1184-1215) and her son and successor George IV, known as Lasha Giorgi (reigned 1215-1222).

[6] Ten years after the Soviet takeover, in 1932, only a few worshipers, mostly Pshavians settled in Kakheti, were in attendance; five bulls and a few sheep were sacrificed, whereas earlier "sacrificial beasts by the hundreds were slaughtered at Lasharoba" [Mak'alatia 1985: 218-9].

[7] The belief that there were once 15, rather than 12 or 11, temebi appears to find support in the expression saxutmet'o "for the fifteen", applied to Qoshara's Dzelisangelozi communal shrine. The origin of this epithet remains obscure.