A spectacular masquerade of eccentric costumes and unfamiliar rituals unfolds in the southeastern village of Georgia annually on March 22. Men chase each other with wooden sticks, and beat up others to collect money for charity, while women prepare local delicacies.
These scenes are not from a phantasmagorical movie but from a Novruz celebration in Sartichala Mughanli, a village situated in the Gardabani region in the extreme southeast of Georgia. It is a place where ethnic Azerbaijanis live, preserve their traditions and blend them with their unique, peculiar rituals. About 10,000 people live in Sartichala Mughanli.
Novruz here is a sight to behold. People from neighboring villages come to witness the festivities.
While Azerbaijanis start celebrating Novruz on March 20 or 21, residents of Mughanli welcome the coming of spring from the beginning of March. Throughout the month, they march through the village, sing songs and dance.
The festivities reach their pinnacle on March 22, when the young and the old, the destitute and the affluent converge on the central square at dawn. The celebration resembles a masquerade, which may look like Halloween celebrations to a Western observer. However, villagers partaking in costume-wearing consider this tradition to be part of the ancient Turkic celebration.
Men also partake in a bizarre tradition of beating up a man to take his money. Community members explain to Meydan TV that the “beating up” ritual is the key element of celebrations.
After taking the money, they swirl in dance and have fun. A group of guys dressed in ancient warrior costumes chase others with wooden sticks to the dance floor and make them dance. From time to time, a guy with the microphone who plays the king tells stick-wielders not to hit too hard.
Interestingly, beaten up guys do not look unhappy or complain about anything. As a sign of respect to the time honored tradition, they do not resist the beating.
Locals insist that no one actually gets injured. The collected money is spent on donations for mosques, wedding festivities and medical expenses for the poor.
Vladimir Putin’s mask
A variety of masks are on display during festivities. Masks are supposed to induce fear and symbolize evil, locals say. One of the masks that featured this year was that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When asked as to why they use scary masks at the celebration, they simply say: “This is how we have seen it done, it is a tradition. We use these masks to make fun of these negative characters.”
Villager Mubariz says that to them Putin is also one of the evil characters, and that is why his mask is used at the celebration.
“All these masks you see here represent something negative. We wear them at the celebration to represent those evil people/characters. Putin just happens to be one of them.”
Venue for courting and raising social issues
Aside from bizarre costumes and customs, Novruz in Sartichala Mughanli also carries a more serious meaning. It is an occasion where locals air their grievances and young men pursue their future wives.
“Guys sometimes find the girls they want to marry during these celebrations. This holiday is the most important one in the lives of our villagers,” Ali, a local resident in his 20s, told Meydan TV.
A man, who leads the celebration and recites poems, occasionally reminds the celebrants about the socio-economic issues the village faces.
“Novruz came to the Mughanli village with no electricity and gas,” he says.
Another guy with a bag in his hands walks from person to person to collect money. People gather money to attend to the village’s issues as they receive no help from the government. Last year the villagers were able to repair their mosque with the collected money:
“This year’s celebration is a bit weak as people do not have much money. We were able to repair the mosque, the roads to the village with money collected in previous years. Some years ago, we would collect even more than necessary, and thus were able to attend to the village’s secondary issues as well,” a resident says.
The celebratory rituals are male-centric, and women’s role is restricted to that of spectators. The rituals are considered unsafe for women and children.
Women are there to make delicious festive dishes at home. The main attributes of the feast are
. Families also paint eggs and plant a wheat grass. Every family prepares a tray, known as
, which features the delicacies and eggs.
Novruz is an occasion to showcase the village’s unique history and tradition.
One of the most interesting episodes of the celebration is a wedding ceremony.
“Although it is a Novruz holiday, we try to showcase our village’s ancient traditions by recreating them as a comedy. Wedding ceremony is one of the most ancient traditions of the village, and we try to show it to the outsiders by using the festive platform,” villager Anar explains.
All of the roles are played by men, including the one of the bride.
As the tradition dictates, at the end of the wedding, the bride is kidnapped.
Although women are not represented in festive rituals, they dress up and come to celebrate with the crowd.
Later in the evening, similar to the Azerbaijani tradition, bonfires are set at the main venue and most of the backyards. Everyone dances around the bonfires, and the celebration goes on well into the midnight. Children and adults alike jump over the bonfires to cleanse from the previous year’s negativities, and start the New Year with fresh hopes. Children put empty hats at the doorsteps in order to receive treats, including nuts and Novruz sweets.
These traditions date back centuries, a local elder Shahbaniz says. Her grandfather used to say that this is the way their ancestry celebrated this holiday. This is why they continue to honor the traditions.
After the public celebrations, everyone goes home and celebrates Novruz in family circles.