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By Parth M.N. and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

MUMBAI, India — India’s highest court on Thursday relaxed safety measures intended to prevent injuries during a beloved religious festival that involves children clambering to the tops of human pyramids and breaking ceremonial pots.

The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling came less than a week before the daylong festival of Janmashtami, which overtakes Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, every August.

The celebration marks the birth of the Hindu god Krishna, who is portrayed in religious epics as an impish kid who formed human pyramids with his friends to steal butter and curd kept in pots hanging from the ceilings of homes. In the modern tradition, men practice for weeks to form pyramids as tall as 40 feet, sending children climbing up to reach the pots.

Every year, there are cases of severe and sometimes fatal injuries. Earlier this week, after a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man died while practicing for the festival, a Mumbai court intervened for the first time, prohibiting the hanging of pots above 20 feet and barring the involvement of people younger than 18.

The new rules prompted an outcry among the participants — known as “govindas” — who said the change undermined a popular Hindu tradition. Responding to an appeal, the Supreme Court on Thursday issued an interim order removing the height ban and said children older than 12 could participate in this year’s festival, to be held Monday, while reserving a final decision for a later date.

“I am relieved. What is the fun of the whole event if the pot is hanged at an unchallenging height?” said Santosh Jogle, a 36-year-old grocer who has been a govinda for two decades.

“And what is 100 percent safe in life?” he added. “Nothing.”

Others said the ban on young children was impractical and even dangerous, as it meant that older and heavier govindas would need to scale the pyramids, placing those below at greater risk of injury.

“An 18-year-old would weigh at least 50 kilos,” or 110 pounds, said Anil Pawar, a 30-year-old electrician who has participated for the last five years. “It would make it more difficult to balance the whole act if he is at the top. The age limit of 12 is fine.”

Children’s activists argue the once innocent practice is increasingly commercialized and dangerous. Local politicians fund extravagant events and invite Bollywood megastars to add glamour, with cash prizes for the winning teams that reach into the thousands of dollars.

The biggest competitions draw throngs of spectators and some are even televised, encouraging teams to take bigger risks. Head and spine injuries are common. The number of injured govindas in the Mumbai area has risen in recent years from at least 205 in 2011 to nearly 500 last year.

The restrictions were “long overdue,” said Vikas Sawant, a children’s rights activist. “The reversal is deplorable.”

The Mumbai court instituted other measures to protect the safety of participants, requiring organizers to ensure that ambulances and first aid are available and to furnish participants with helmets and safety belts.

But the height and age rules did not sit well with those the court sought to protect.

“We have been playing this sport from ages and it is unjust … to disallow children from participating,” Bala Pednekar, president of an umbrella body of govinda groups, told reporters before the Supreme Court announcement. “We will continue our tradition no matter what.”

Political figures who use the annual event to bolster their standing in Mumbai were also opposed to any attempt to regulate it. The state of Maharashtra filed an appeal, saying it could not implement new rules so close to the holiday.

“It is not proper to shut a religious festival this way suddenly,” said the state’s home minister, R.R. Patil.

Daya Sawant, a 44-year-old who runs a car rental business, began playing the sport at age 9 and said it helps instill strength and team spirit in children.

“The involvement of kids is important for their growth,” he said. “When they climb at the top, they develop courage.”

Parth M.N. is a Times special correspondent.

Photo via WikiCommons

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