Torch Time: Etseri, Svaneti

Lamproba again, the Festival of Torches. I’ve celebrated this important annual Svan event in a few different communities over the years, each with its own version and even date: Ushguli, Mestia and central Etseri. Once, even, on the shores of Tbilisi Sea. That counted because it was still hosted by Svans. But this was my first time in lower Etseri, starting from the ancestral home of my blood brother, despite my having lived here all these years. And he came up from Tbilisi for it, too. We were remembering an important military victory won here because of exactly the same sort of burning brands.

I also had guests, in particular a young Canadian family based for the moment in Latali. He’s studying the local music and songs for a doctoral thesis in Ethnomusicology. His wife has also worked as a music teacher; and the little girl, just two years old, had her singing debut on the Mestia stage, the last New Year... They walked down to Ladreri with me, taking a big shortcut through a field on the nice firm snow of this frosty dark dawn for a 7 am start.

My friend had cut me the required sharp-ended birch torch, with its other end cut and splayed out a bit for a nice easy burn—one per male household member. We joined the bonfire which was just starting, added our pieces into the hard snow, and enjoyed the crispness while other men came from nearby, in family units, each with its burning torches to add. Slowly the day lightened.

When all were assembled, we faced east. The elders held up specially prepared round flatbread loaves and bottles of moonshine for each family, and beseeched the local powers (here personified in St George) for a good year for each family in turn, ending each with a sung “Haaaaaa-men!”

The bonfire was a much needed respite from the chill of below-freezing weather, and it slowly sank its way into more snow than anyone there could remember there being for a late-February date, not being put out by the snow but winning over it in a circle several feet across. My blood brother’s guest, a refugee from Tskhinvali who has had to completely reinvent his life in Tbilisi and Agara, told us of the deep woe of not being able to visit his parents’ graves in his homeland for the past eight years. But materially he’s done all right the second time around. This was his first visit to Svaneti.

I couldn’t stay or even return for the feast later that afternoon as I still had other guests, plus a barn of animals, needing attention at home; and why should my wife have all this burden to herself? So with regrets, I said my goodbyes and plodded off. My Canadians, however, sent their man to the feast, where he joined most of the local men’s choir, Riho, and even led quite a few of their songs. More on him, and them, in another article soon. He made quite an impression there, knowing so many Svan songs. And he may well write a book on the subject, the first ever in English. If there’s one thing this part of the world is rich in, it’s culture.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1300 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

25 February 2016 19:12