Every year since he was 12, Salman Mirza has been an enthusiastic participant in the “dahi handi” human pyramids that characterise the celebration of Krishna Janmashtami in parts of Maharashtra. Light weighted and agile, Mirza – now 21 – is a member of one of the many neighbourhood groups that travel around Mumbai on the festival that marks the birthday of the deity Krishna. They form multi-tiered human pyramids that attempt to reach up to the earthen pots of yoghurt that are suspended high above streets across the city. The group that manages to break open the pot earns a monetary reward.

This year, Mirza was even more excited – and it was not just because the richest purse on Friday was Rs 55 lakh. On Thursday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde announced that dahi handi would be given the status of an adventure sport. This means that govindas, as the participants in pyramids are known, can apply for government jobs under the 5% quota reserved for sportspersons. Competitions will be held throughout the year, not just on Janmashtami and sponsors will be roped in to fund this Pro Govinda League.

For Mirza, who works as a driver, this may be the opportunity to covert a pastime into the opportunity to earn some money. “I will definitely look at it as a career option if we have commercial competitions,” he said as he clambered into a truck with his friends to participate in an event in the eastern Mumbai neighbourhood of Kurla that his group organises.

The campaign to have dahi handi categorised as an adventure sport began over ten years ago. “We reached out to local politicians to declare this a sport,” said Surendra Panchal, the secretary of a group called the Dahi Handi Samanvay Samiti. “We have been following up with our demand with successive governments.”

Some observers, however, saw a political objective in the announcement of the Pro Govinda League and Shinde’s decision to make the festival a public holiday for the first time. After all, elections to municipal corporations in several districts in Maharashtra are due over the next few months.

In the wake of the split in the Shiv Sena into two factions, one headed by Shinde and the other by Uddhav Thackeray, each side organised dahi handi events across the city.

But MLA Pratap Sarnaik, who joined the Shinde faction to form a state government with the Bharatiya Janata Party at the end of July, said that the Pro Govinda League was an attempt to make the spirit of Janmashtami last all year.

“Shindesahib follows the Hindutva ideology and this festival is celebrated by a large section of Hindus,” he said. “Therefore he decided to elevate it and convert it into a sport.” He added that the dahi handi pyramids “teach team building and unity. We don’t want people to forget it after the festival is over.”

Govindas part of Sri Sai Govinda Padak in Mumbai's Kala Chowki gear up to form human pyramid for Janmashtami festival on Thursday.

Dahi handi groups will soon hold meetings with government officials to formulate rules and regulations for the sport, said Surendra Panchal of the Dahi Handi Samanvay Samiti. In addition, a committee comprising government officials and members from the Samiti will be formed to brainstorm on how to get sponsors, formulate rules, and organise competitions through the year, he said.

Pilot event

On Friday, as 300 groups registered to compete for the prize in Vartak Nagar in Thane, Panchal said the event would be treated like a pilot project to try to determine how the Govinda League would work.

Sandeep Dongre, one of the organisers, said the teams would not be allowed to form pyramids rising higher than 40 feet, which would mean they would be capped at seven or eight tiers. “We will judge the best team based on formation, how many people are participating in it, how big and strong the base is and how efficiently they form the pyramid,” he said.

The safety of participants has long been a concern during the festival. Falls, if even they are not fatal, could cause grave injuries and even result in paralysis. In 2016, the Supreme Court limited the height of pyramids to 20 feet and barred minors from participating in the activity.

For now, most participants who form the top two tiers of the pyramid wear helmets and knee caps, but those lower down do not wear safety gear. “If we wear a helmet, it becomes difficult for a person to climb over our heads,” explained Mirza. “They may fall.”

On Friday by noon, 12 govindas had been injured across Mumbai. By 6 pm, the figure rose to 91 across government hospitals.

Nilesh Kamath, a member of the Sri Sai Govinda Padak that organises dahi handi celebrations in South Mumbai’s Kala Chowki, said large groups buy insurance cover for their govindas and provide safety gear. “In small-scale celebrations, such precautions are not taken,” he said.

From next year, Chief Minister Shinde said that the state government would offer a Rs 10 lakh insurance cover for all govindas.

Injuries and insurance

Govindas form a human pyramid without safety gear in Kala Chowki.

While Sharad Bhorunde, 32, an organiser of the Sri Sai Govinda Mandal in Kurla, welcomed the government’s move to provide insurance cover, he was sceptical about whether dahi handi would be a popular sport.

“Janmashtami is cultural get-together,” he said. “We spare time from our busy schedules to enjoy the festival once a year. I am not sure if the fun will still remain if it comes a sport and there are competitions held.”

Sandeep Jaiswal, another regular dahi handi particpant, agreed with Bhorunde. He said that he starts practicing a month before the festival. But when dahi handi becomes a sport, he wasn’t sure he’d want to put more time into it.