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In India, celebrations of Krishna Janmashtami or Gokul Ashtami, the birth of Hindu deity Sri Krishna, are marked by the famous Dahi Handi ritual. Groups of young men and women climb on top of each other to form human pyramids in an attempt to break a clay pot of butter or curd suspended at a height of 20-40 feet or so from the ground. With various teams competing to form the highest pyramid, and feverish crowds cheering them on, the ritual gathers the same spirit and fervor as any other competitive sports in the country.
The ritual is a tribute to young Krishna’s love for butter. While his attempts to steal butter as a toddler are commonly perceived as an endearing quirk, there is a deeper meaning to the act. Butter and other dairy products from Krishna’s hometown of Vrindavan were meant to be sent as tax to the town of Mathura ruled by Kamsa (Krishna’s hostile maternal uncle). So Krishna’s habit of stealing and distributing butter among his friends is perceived to have been an act of love and compassion. Regardless, to keep him from stealing butter, his mother and even neighbors stored it in pots placed way above his reach. As the story goes, that didn’t stop him! Climbing atop his friends, Krishna still managed to get to the pot’s contents.
It is this very scene that devotees from across the country, but mostly in the state of Maharashtra, are attempting to reconstruct or re-enact. Each group gets two shots at forming a pyramid high enough to break the pot, and prize money ranges from thousands to lakhs of rupees depending on the sponsors of the event.
Competing teams are always attempting to break the world record. Varying from 4 to 9 or even more tiers, the pyramid is usually around 30 feet in height. The current record stands at 43.9 feet, set in 2012 by a group named Jai Jawan Govinda Pathak, from Jogeshwari.
The ritual is particularly popular in Mumbai where even Bollywood actors occasionally participate. However, a host of concerns about safety of participants in Dahi Handi curse the tradition ever since it started becoming fiercely competitive. The government of Maharashtra has introduced various preventative regulations over the years to address the numerous cases of injuries, and a number of fatalities that have occurred during the ritual. A young boy fell to his death in Mumbai during the ritual in 2015. While children –light and agile – were always vital participants in the pyramids, only those over the age of 12 are now allowed to compete. Furthermore, children between the ages of 12 and 18 are required to have written permission from their guardians. Other regulations introduced include restrictions on the height of the pyramids to 20 feet. These moves haven’t really gone down well with the public who have since protested, petitioned and even broken the law, forming pyramids over 30 feet.