The Precarious Human Pyramids of Govinda Sport

A precarious pyramid made of people sways in the street, surrounded by crowds of eager observers. What is going on here?

Govinda, or Dahi Handi, is a sport played in India to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna. In short, a handi (or pot) is hung 20 to 30 feet high in the air on a rope. Silver coins are hung on the rope, and the pot is filled with dahi (yogurt) and dried fruit.

A human pyramid is then formed by individuals clambering over each other, called Govindas; usually these are men, although women are now also playing this sometimes dangerous sport. The goal is to reach the handi filled with dahi – and it’s evidently quite an incentive! A 43.79-foot-high human pyramid created in Mumbai was given a certificate by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Physical exertion aside, Govinda is a celebration full of religious fervor – a festival of devotion, music, color and daring. People chant “Ala re ala, Govinda ala” (Krishna / Govinda is coming) and the atmosphere can at times be electric.

The goodies of the handi, in particular the silver coins, are distributed as prizes to the winners. This includes the broken pieces of earthen pot, which are believed to keep mice and negative forces away from the recipients’ homes.

Govinda is most popular in Mumbai, where teams take over normally congested streets to reach their prized handis. As if this weren’t perilous enough, a small boy is sent to the top of the pyramid to break the handi, while onlookers throw water his way to distract him and keep him from breaking the pot.

This sport finds many men eager to show their manly prowess and ability to handle pain and injuries. The effort also requires collaboration, bravery, patience and respect for fellow participants. So valued is the experience that a Mumbai school of management now accepts Govinda sport as a training lesson.

However, despite these positives, every year many people get injured playing this sport. In 2010, the injury count was 225, and two men even died due to either falling or suffocating under a pile of other people. Another man was seriously injured after falling onto power lines.

All Indian children grow up hearing the tale of naughty Krishna, who stole butter or yogurt from the pot. The story goes that the dairy goodness was kept high out of Krishna’s reach, but that Krishna managed to climb up to reach it and would then pick holes in the pot so that the contents would leak out and could be drunk.

This festival celebrates the prankster – the mischievous and risk-taking sides of Krishna and children alike – but sometimes it seems that Govinda sport is no laughing matter.

Sources: 1, 2, 3