Among Mumbai’s most iconic sights, along with the Gateway of India and Marine Drive, are the enormous human pyramids formed each year on Janmashtami, the festival that commemorates Lord Krishna’s birth. But this year, a controversy about the celebrations has resulted in a Supreme Court decision to ban children under 12 from participating in the formations. The ruling aims to halt the spate of accidents involving child participants, but hasn’t managed to satisfy any of the parties involved in the debate.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court overruled a Bombay High Court decision earlier in the week, that had set 18 as the minimum age for participants in human pyramids – which can reach as high as a three- or four-storey building. Rehearsals for this year’s festival, which is known in Maharashtra as Gokulashtami, have claimed already two lives. But child rights groups argue that the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t go far enough and young lives will continue to be in danger when the festival is held on Monday.

The human pyramids are formed to commemorate the playfulness demonstrated by the child Krishna as he clambered atop the homes of his neighbours to steal buttermilk. In India’s commercial capital, neighbourhood associations string up earthen pots containing yoghurt high above the street. Groups of young men, known as Govindas, travel through the city in trucks, forming many-tiered human pyramids to reach the pot and break it open.

Lucrative prizes

Cracking the vessel – the dahi handi – earns them more than prestige. In recent years, politicians have offered lucrative prizes too. Last year, for instance, Nationalist Congress Party leader Jeetendra Awhad offered Rs 1.11 crore.

As the prizes grow to mind-boggling levels, so does the height of the pots – after all, no politician wants to give their money away easily. But this means that falls from atop the pyramids are even more dangerous.

These days, pyramids can contain as many as nine tiers of people. The bottom levels comprise strong men, while children bring up the upper reaches. The child at the very top – who is a greatest risk – is traditionally five or six. The death count has averaged five over the past few years.

Given the risks to children, the Maharashtra State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights mandated in March that pyramid participants be at least 12. With various public interest litigations at hand – including one by Swati Patil, secretary of the NGO Utkarsh Mahila Samajik Sanstha – the controversy surrounding the dahi handi reached the Bombay High Court this week. On Monday, the court increased the minimum-age requirement to 18. The Dahi Handi Utsav Samanvay Samiti, which represents all dahi handi groups in Mumbai, appealed to the Supreme Court.

Disappointment all around

Even though the Supreme Court ruling is more permissive than the High Court’s, dahi handi organisers are disappointed. “Dahi handi is supposed to be a festival for children,” Bala Padalkar, the DHUSS president, told He said that the ruling would deprive many children from participating in the century-old tradition.

In the view of Sachin Ahir of the Nationalist Congress Party, the ruling will rob the festival of its grandeur. “Weight [of those in the pyramid] is always an issue,” he said. “At the higher levels you need to have a weight that can go up. Now with the 12-year requirement, there’ll be a problem. Height [of the pyramid] will have to be smaller. One layer less.”

Where the organisers consider the court ruling too strict, child rights groups find it insufficient. “With young children, there’s the issue of choice,” said Kreeanne Radabi, Regional Director (West) of Child Relief and You. Twelve year olds are too young to assess the dangers of participating in pyramids. “And physically,” Radabi continued, “they’re not as strong. So chances of injury are much higher.”

Despite the discontent, preparations for Monday’s celebrations are heightening in earnest. According to Padalkar of the organisers’ committee, while the  court’s order is indeed supreme, “nothing can affect the spirit of the celebrations”.