Today I’m sitting down with Mariam Saginashvili, a young girl from the village of Didi Chailuri in Georgia’s eastern region of Kakheti. She’s known around town for her love of Georgian traditions, ancient lore and passion for her community.
It was a chilly spring morning, 40 days on the dot before Easter, when a mob of giant masked figures charged through the streets of the otherwise peaceful Didi Chailuri village in east Georgia. Sporting bizarre costumes and screaming at the top of their lungs, their whips popped on the pavement like firecrackers and it only meant one thing, Berikaoba was in full swing.
As they continued galloping down the street, locals ranging from lone grannies to small families made their way to the roadside to participate in the ancient tradition by offering gifts to the so-called Berikas in the form of eggs, bread, wine and the likes. Why? Well, it’s simple. Offer up gifts to the revelers and your odds of a fruitful spring increase tenfold. Abstain and you’re in for a long season of misfortune.
It’s an ancient fertility ritual marked by its strange costumes, chaotic energy and muddy caresses given to spectators for good luck. It’s followed by community festivities like folk theatre, chidaoba wrestling and feasting. In its day, it was celebrated across the country, thousands of years later however, it has dwindled down to just a few villages who’ve kept the tradition alive. And in Didi Chailuri, there’s one girl who, with the help of her history teacher and a few friends, has made it her personal mission to help her community continue the ancient ritual. Her name is Mariam Saginashvili and at 16 years old, she has more passion in her pinky finger than most adults will ever acquire. She’ll never tell you willingly, but when she’s not preparing for the annual Berikaoba festival, she’s volunteering for Red Cross, leading the Sagarejo Youth House, and pitching in for educational non-profits. Far beyond her years, she’s driven by a love for her village and a passion for its rich history.
Mariam’s admiration for her village, involving Berikaoba and beyond, is what immediately hooked me. And I knew then that I had to get the scoop on what goes into the mind of a 16 year old far more invested in local lore and community development than tiktok videos and flavor-of-the-week fashion trends.
What do you think makes Didi Chailuri a special place compared with any other village?
Well, Didi Chailuri is a simple place, but not without its charm and beauty. What we lack in a metropolitan atmosphere we make up for with a peaceful winding river, towering trees and a medieval hilltop fortress which overlooks Didi Chailuri and the other surrounding villages. Most of all though, I believe Didi Chailuri has some of the warmest people in the country, many of whom have been here for countless generations. Of course, we also have Berikaoba, and as one of only three villages in the country who have preserved this tradition, I think that is pretty special.
How did you become involved in Berikaoba and what was your first experience like?
I will be honest – I was absolutely terrified at first. In fact, I vividly remember hiding under the table as they paraded down the street. Once I couldn’t hear the screams anymore, I crawled out from under the table and on one hand I was thankful to have dodged the scary monsters, but on the other, I was suddenly very interested in what I’d missed out on. That began my love for the festival. From then on I began helping my brother prepare his mask and costume every year and took on more responsibilities as I got older. Then when I became closer to my history teacher Eka, I saw firsthand the passion she has for this tradition and became even more obsessed! From there I began helping her bring awareness to the rest of Georgia about our unique cultural traditions.
Speaking of Eka, can you tell me more about her?
Eka Veshapidze is the history teacher at our school and is an avid lover of Chailurian history and Georgian folk traditions. Mutter the name “Eka Veshapidze” anywhere in Didi Chailuri, and faces immediately light up. Students, parents of students, cousins of friends of students and so on, all know the warmth and passion of Eka. She’s gone above and beyond the realms of an everyday teacher and does so much more than simply educate. She inspires, she leads, she impacts and most of all, she instills her own love for Didi Chailuri within her classroom and community.
Her love for Didi Chailuri also extends deep into our local lore which is why she is so invested in preserving Berikaoba and moreover, instilling a pride for this festival into our village’s youth so that it never dies out as it has throughout the rest of the country.
Were your parents/grandparents etc involved in Berikaoba as well?
My father has a huge admiration for Berikaoba. While he has never been a Berika himself, he always opened our home for the Berikas to indulge in our wine and feast on our homemade dishes. My brother Nika on the other hand, has been a Berika practically since he could walk! During his first experience of the festival, he was horrified (just like I was a few years later) and hid in the garden the entire time. But he quickly began to look up to the performers who acted the part of Berikas and realized it was something he wanted to be apart of. Nowadays, he is madly in love with the ritual and traditions of the festival and takes such great pride in crafting his costume. Helping him create his elaborate mask is one of my favorite things to look forward to every year. And though I may be a tad biased, his mask is always one of the best!
My other family members come together for the festival as well. My cousins help me with certain crafts and in the past my grandparents have opened their homes for Berikas to feast or take offerings. The Saginashvili family has been in Didi Chailuri for as many generations as I know of, so our love for our traditions here run very deep.
Can you tell me a little bit more about why you’re dedicated to helping Berikaoba go on?
Year after year I feel so grateful to help my brother get into character for Berikaoba and to help Eka raise awareness for this holiday. It gives me a great sense of pride to know that I am sharing my community and our unique Georgian traditions with others. When I’m tidying up the streets, helping prepare food for the festival, and organizing the logistics of everything, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. And yes, I may seem young, but I love this holiday and know in my heart that it is truly a special tradition that I feel privileged to help preserve no matter my age.
Thanks to Eka, many of my classmates and friends are also very involved. She taught us to love our history and in doing so gave many of my classmates the same desire to preserve Berikaoba that I have. Every year we collaborate further to try to invite more guests to enjoy the festival. I won’t lie, it’s certainly chaotic and at times can be very stressful. But at the end of the day, we are all very enthusiastic about continuing this tradition and understand that preserving our culture is what’s most important.
In your opinion, what is the most important reason for preserving Berikaoba?
Because Berikaoba has mostly disappeared throughout the rest of Georgia, I feel like my village has the opportunity to not only keep it alive, but to revive the tradition completely. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by. If we don’t continue to celebrate this tradition then the next generation will forget about it, just like the rest of Georgia. I also know that one of the most meaningful aspects of Berikaoba, is that it provides a very special glimpse into our past. It gives us and visitors a connection to our ancestors who also celebrated, and their ancestors before them.
Lastly, what is one thing you’d like to tell outsiders who’ve never seen or heard of Berikaoba?
Berikaoba tends to evoke a lot of different emotions. Some people see its beauty and are intrigued by our ancient traditions. Others think it’s strange and judge us for encouraging “disgraceful” behavior and pagan traditions. So I say, come and see for yourself. Feel the intensity of our history, and experience the energy that brings my village to life during Berikaoba. We will be happy to have you.
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