MUMBAI, India — On a recent evening in south Mumbai, a group of men in matching jerseys had arranged themselves in concentric circles and were hoisting smaller boys up and up, until their bare feet balanced precariously on the rounded shoulders below.
Finally, the smallest of them — he said he was 13, but he was as skinny as a 10-year-old — scrambled up to the top of the pyramid, looking ahead in tense concentration. Five tiers of human bodies now separated him from the ground, some 30 feet down, grassy but strewn with gravel and small stones. A hush fell; this was the most dangerous part.
The Hindu festival of Dahi Handi, which was celebrated Monday, reaches its annual climax with the heart-stopping sight of young boys — often aged 4 to 10 — hoisted to the tops of wobbly human pyramids, where they smash jugs of buttermilk suspended in midair, in homage to the god Krishna. And every year, boys and men are hurt in falls.
On Monday, there were 202 injuries among participants, according to The Indian Express, a daily newspaper. A 14-year-old died after falling from the top of a five-tier pyramid during a practice earlier this month.
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In recent years, political parties and large corporations have jumped in as sponsors, and the pyramids have reached improbable heights, with the current record being a nine-tier pyramid more than 40 feet high. Prize money for the tallest pyramids can go up to 10 million rupees, about $165,000.
This year, Mumbai’s High Court attempted for the first time to impose some restrictions on the pyramids, setting a minimum age of 18 for participants, limiting the height of pyramids to 20 feet, and requiring the use of helmets, safety belts and layers of cushions. Local politicians and team organizers protested passionately, and some threatened to cancel their competitions.
“Dahi Handi has gone from being only a religious festival to an adventure sport,” said Mangesh Belose, who organizes the Young Umerkhadi Dahi Handi troupe. “In an adventure sport, there are risks involved, but that does not mean that the sport should be shut down.”
He said it was “unfortunate” that children participating in the event had died but said they were a “statistical minority” of the nearly 500,000 people who participated each year.
The festival, which commemorates stories of Krishna trying to steal buttermilk as a child, was beset with controversy this year.
It was after the death of the 14-year-old boy that the High Court imposed its first safety regulation on the pyramids, which set off a roar of protest. Jeetendra Awhad, a state legislator, then petitioned the Supreme Court, which removed the height restriction for the pyramids and lowered the minimum age of participation to 12.
Politicians and organizers argued that the people criticizing the festival could not possibly understand the poor men and boys who take part.
The critics “are sitting in their air-conditioned houses,” said Awhad, whose Dahi Handi competition is among the biggest in the city. “They are not on the ground, and they have never been a part of this festival. They are watching it on television, and they come out with some suggestions.”
Organizers say they prefer young boys to ascend to the top of the pyramid because they are lighter and more nimble and because they generate goodwill for the team. Ganesh Chavan, 42, who coaches Tadwadi Mitra Mandal, a troupe famous for its nine-tier human pyramid, said boys are best when they are younger than 12.
“By then they understand fear, and once they develop a fear of the height in their minds, then they cannot attempt to do it,” he said. “Younger children do not have that fear inside them.”
In recent years, insurance companies have begun to offer special packages for Dahi Handi participants, charging about 50 rupees per participant and providing coverage of up to about 150,000 rupees as compensation. Activists argue that the amount is far too little.
“The government and the organizers will pay the family some meager compensation, but the rest of that child’s life is ruined,” said Minaxi Jaiswal, former chairwoman of the Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a government body that has advocated for the safety of child participants in the festival.
Rehearsals culminated in a day of feverish celebration Monday, as boys and men converged to the raucous sounds of Bollywood songs on loudspeakers. Some 1,200 teams participated in a series of competitions over the course of the day, each trying to erect the highest pyramid. Prize money is given to the organizers, who use it to arrange other events. Participants receive T-shirts, transportation and food for the day.
In the neighborhood of Worli, the crowd seemed at once anxious, exhilarated and deliriously happy. The pot was dangling at a height of about 35 feet, and crowds at the base of the pyramid offered up their hands in support to the younger men at the top as the smallest among them clambered up.
Ishwar Prabhakar Bhandari, who said he was 13, has twice served as the top of the Young Umarkhadi Dahi Handi group’s pyramid. This year, he said, it would have nine tiers.
“Everyone in the neighborhood knows me,” he said. “I make my mother and father so proud.”