I'm in Spain, but more precisely Catalonia. Today I will be taking part in the Catalan game of Als Castellers, the great art of building human castles.
The Catalan people come together from miles around to build human castles as many as 10 people high. Hundreds of all ages participate from the brave 6-year-old summit climbing L'axanetas to the veteran 60-year-old stalwarts forming La Pinya, the solid base fortification. Als Castellers is a true symbol of Catalan unity and hard working ethic.
It is said that the birth of Castellers took place in the town of Valls, just west of Barcelona when a little more than 250 years ago towns and villages would come together from the local area to participate in catholic ceremonies. During these religious events a dance would be performed with the crucifix of Christ. At the end of each dance the group of dancers would hold up their crucifix as high and as close to god as humanly possible. This final show of religious devotion became a focal point of the ceremonies and each group would attempt to raise their crucifix higher than previous attempts. This element of the ceremony became a sort of competition between neighbouring towns and villages. It was not long before the participants became experts in climbing and standing on top of each other in order to present their crucifix as the highest and closest to god. Slowly the act of building these human castles split away from the religious ceremony, it may have seemed unchristian to make a competition from belief in god, and the competitive element of Als Castellers was born. The summit climbers still throw their hands up in the air to complete the formation of the tower, but they no longer hold a crucifix.
Although Als Castellers contained a competitive element it retained the community spirit and comradeship that the religious event must have started from. Although each team wanted to prove their superiority in building higher towers with more grace than their competitors, the teams would also help and support each other's castles to show solidarity and brotherhood amongst fellow Catalans.
A points scoring system was introduced to the event so that teams and spectators could have a more comprehensive measure of the best and worst performances. Points are scored on the type of tower formation created in the castle, how high it is built, the grace in which it is created, composure in holding the position and then finally how smoothly it is deconstructed.
Women entered the sport quite recently and have proven to be indispensable in the quest of constructing the best possible castles. It stands to reason that the more participants of varying weight, size and balance will provide a better chance of building a more successful castle.
Today Als Castellers is relatively unchanged from its original conception. The towers formations have remained, as have the notions competition and comradeship amongst countrymen. The game and tradition continues to grow in popularity as new teams (collas) are formed every year. There are now more than 70 teams across Catalonia alone.
One of the most exceptional aspects of Als Castellers is that it impossible to create one of these castles without the full support of an entire village or town. It is not simply a matter of getting together with a few friends, that just wouldn't work. It is vital that members of every age group participate.
The very youngest from around 6 years old must climb to the summit of the tower because they are the lightest and most nimble to perform the task. Asking an older member of the group to reach the top would be a disaster as the castle crumbled under the weight an imbalance. The age, weight and strength of each team member increases with each stage below the summit.
At the very bottom of the tower stand the most sturdy of the group who must withstand the pressure of up to 9 stages standing on their shoulders. This is a gruelling task, but is aided by the formation of La Pinya, the fortifications around the base that help the bottom stage to stand tall. La Pinya is often made up of the heaviest and older generations, but does not exclude any member who might be able to give a little extra support.
Additionaly there are several satellite team members who have an important role in organising the towers.
A technician is charged with the job of strategising the makeup of each tower and must weigh up the positive and negative strengths of the group that day paying great attention to ability and health as a bad decision in placing the human blocks could cripple the tower.
A director is responsible for giving vocal orders to the team as they perform, noting the success or failure of every foot and handhold, making sure the best immediate advise is given. Guidance must be clear and strong as there is no room for faltering in this business. Again this role is of paramount importance as no other member can see the entire castle from this outside perspective. The director must work closely with the technician to have a full knowledge of what each team member should be capable of.
A guardian is responsible for looking after the youngest members and can often be see carrying 1 or 2 children, keeping them close and comfortable. When the youngest go up to climb it is this guardian who keeps in contact with the children. The children focus on this voice alone for instruction all the way to the top and all the way to the bottom and back into the guardian's arms.
A great contribution to the community spirit and success of each performance is made with music. Musicians (Gralles) play on drums and traditional pipes called Gralla. The music is a kind of metronome of pace and indication of completion for each stage of the tower's construction and deconstruction. The musicians take their cue both from the tower building and the commands of the director. Through the music the other team members will know how far their tower has progressed even if they cannot see it. This helps each member to brace themselves for the duration of the performance.
Step By Step
The rules of Castellers are inherent in the necessity for composure. A successful castle can only be built if everyone is working in unison and that requires discipline. At the very beginning of the event the team members help prepare each other for the task ahead. This is consummated in the binding of every player's midriff, each with a very long sheet of strong black cotton. One Player will stand holding the sheet and one end as the other tucks the sheet around the waist and back slowly turning around and around until the sheet has wrapped the player 3 or 4 times. The wide band is finally tied off with 1 or more red headscarves giving the player a great deal of support to their spine.
The director then confers with all the team members the role they will play in the construction of the tower as they huddle round and listen. The bottom stage then stands in place as the Pinya forms around them holding up their hands towards the centre of the tower.
The director then gives the first order as the music starts and the second stage climb upon the Pinya and step into position on the shoulders of the bottom stage. This all happens with a military like execution and the music supports this act in its military like rhythm.
The following stages are smoothly executed in the same manner until the L'axaneta reaches the top, before the whole thing is deconstructed again. IT is incredibly important that the tower is deconstructed with the same military discipline to guarantee the safety of all involved. Any waver in discipline can cause the imbalance and a propensity for the castle to collapse.
Castellers shows the tremendous strength of unity in the Catalan people and a comradeship that is seldom seen in many European cultures. This game is truly symbolic of the Catalan hard working ethic and closely knit society.