On the 22nd of March 2017, the “supra”, which is a traditional Georgian feast, was added to the list of international cultural heritage by UNESCO. Its unique status gives this item of Georgian heritage a legal form of protection and proves that the supra meal is something more than a simple feast. It is a ceremony involving plentiful rituals, to feed both body and soul.
Paul Manning, a journalist who researched post-Soviet Georgian ethnography, reached the conclusion that the fabric of Georgian social life is almost all about one endless supra feast. This is not surprising, seeing as this unique tradition has been celebrated for generations and provides everything necessary for a fulfilling existence. It includes warm company, food and drink, song and dance and inevitable toasts, which have risen to the status of a unique, ritualised art form based around the skill of oration.
The meaning of supra meals
The word “supra” (სუფრა) in Georgian means “tablecloth” and comes from the Arabic word sufratun, used to describe a cloth which would be laid out on the floor and eaten from. In Persian, this word becomes sofra, referring to both the cloth as well as ancient religious and magical practices. Persian sofras in antiquity were connected with tales, poems and sermons, recited at specific times of the feast. One can suspect that between the 17th and 4th centuries BC this custom reached Georgia. It was given unique character, drawing on Persian, Georgian, Circassian and Turkic traditions. At present, the supra serves the following functions in Georgian culture:
- culinary – folks can eat and drink to their hearts’ content.
- relaxing – people can rest, soothe their emotions, relax
- communicative – people meet, exchange information, strengthening social bonds
- educational and behavioural – a way to deepen social hierarchies, which also relate to how people are seated round the table, the toasts and discussions teaching the art of oration, while maintaining a ritual continuation of the customs of feasting from the times of Christ himself.
The Supra tradition
Archaeological sources make it clear Georgians feasted centuries back, confirmed by the discovery of a ritual statue in the town of Vani to the west of the country, showing a tamada holding a horn, dated around the 7th century BC (in Tbilisi in 2007 a statue was erected as a replica of this ancient sculpture, in enlarged scale). And yet there are few other sources allowing us to discover the character of the supra from years back, and this is because – according to the Polish historian Bohdan Baranowski – “almost until the second half of the 17th century, Georgians had no cultural contact with Western Europe”. In turn, travellers and war veterans returning to the Caucasus in the 19th century rarely investigated Georgian culinary traditions, more interested in the natural world, architecture, politics and local literatures. Of the few written accounts, created by the German writer and translator Artur Leist between 1884–1892, we know that decades ago the supra feast was made up of several fixed elements: dining, toasts with wine, songs and dances.
Even Georgians themselves are surprised to find that supras, as they are celebrated today, emerge not from ancient Georgian histories, but from the 19th century. This was a time when the country lost its independence, and feasting together helped bring sibling souls together, allowing people to talk about local politics and life priorities. This is most likely when the supra became more of a secular event. Anthropological analysis shows how much the character of the toasts issued changed, from sparsely sang well wishing sentiments becoming lengthy, moralising anecdotes and recollections. They were also assigned hierarchies, and the tamada (previously called “tolumbasha”) became a key institution of each and every supra. This was when Georgian language developed the terms tamada & toast (we find these in a 19th century dictionary by David Chubinashvili). These new traditions have survived until the present day and have become a true Georgian calling card – representing a country of welcoming people, happy to invite everyone to sit round a shared table and for whom guests are a gift from the gods.
Supra – more than just a well stocked table
Dinner feasts are frequently organised all over the country: in restaurants, gardens and parks, schools and private homes. Georgians can always find a good reason to chat over a glass of wine, thereby strengthening social bonds, thus foreigners can have the impression the locals do nothing other than holding feasts. This is a mistake – the same as the very notion of the supra meal is misread by most foreigners. It is mainly focused on meeting together, poetic toasts and songs, which make the whole thing a moving and remarkably beautiful event.
“Those visiting Georgia, […] will be introduced to the supra tradition, so essential to Georgians and their lifestyles. Georgians feast any chance they get, though this is not down to vanity or lightheartedness. […] Feasts are not about gluttony, nothing to do with boozing, with partying. […] Georgians detest drunkenness, won’t drink just for the sake of it. The table is an excuse, covered with lots of delicious excuses to eat and drink” – Ryszard Kapuściński in his Invitation to Georgia, taken from his book of travel writing titled A Kirghiz Dismounts.
In the past, supra meals were held at tables which had an indentation in the centre – the food placed in it was shared by everyone round the table, the intention being to bring everyone closer together. Of course, these days no one eats from the one “plate”, but the table – richly loaded with meats, chinkali dumplings, chachapuri pancakes, soups, vegetables and cakes – still functions symbolically: a theatre where everyone has a role to play. Each supra follows a pre-arranged sequence, the key moment being after the eating is done. The tamada who leads the proceedings begins then a round of toasts.
Tamada – master of ceremonies
According to one hypothesis, the word “tamada” comes from the Circassian tongue, and was formed of two words – “tawi” which means “head” and “magida” means “table – which would mean the person at the head of the table. Another interpretation has this word formed of “tawi” and “mada” – meaning “appetite”, which could be understood as “the one who fuels appetites”. Currently, the word “tamada” is most often understood as a sort of master of ceremonies, in secular terms referring to the one who keeps the celebration going, leading the supra, ensuring rituals are adhered to: raising toasts, looking after guests and ensuring hierarchies are honoured.
The tamada is chosen either by the diners or the head of the house where the supra feast is being enjoyed. At private functions, this is a member of the group, while in public spaces, such as in restaurants, more and more often professional tamadas are hired, along with comedians and actors.
Tamadas tend to be mature (not always elderly) men who command popular respect. This could be the most important person at the table, but they must know all the others (for during the toasting session they have to introduce them by name and say something about them), gifted with the ability to hold people’s attention, to recite and orate, as well as to drink without suffering from the effects of inebriation. This last reason is why women are rarely selected to be tamadas, for Georgians are convinced women are far worse than men at handling alcohol, and it is not the done thing for them to indulge in drinking it excessively – regardless of how the times around us might be changing. “Toasts are a man’s thing” according to Kapuściński in his book A Kirghiz Dismounts.
Being selected to act as the tamada is always a great privilege, but also a great challenge. Master of ceremonies – this role involves:
- clearly defined responsibilities, such as the excellent knowledge of how and when toasts should be made;
- having a charismatic personality and the ability to create a positive atmosphere, ensuring all supra participants are enjoying themselves;
- being able to engage everyone in singing, playing games and competitions;
- having the gift of fine oration, making toasts which last for up to 20 minutes, enlightening guests;
- as a result, they must know Georgian literature and folklore – hence the tamada is usually someone educated and well travelled;
- they have to be charming, humorous and musical. It is good if they – an obvious thing in Georgia – can sing well, play an instrument and know national dances. Most Georgians have a fine ear for music and like to enhance the supra by singing songs – including the typically Georgian polyphonic singing style, which since 2008 has been added to the UNESCO list of global heritage.
- they have to be able to hold their drink – which does not mean they must drink a lot – they must drink wisely, for a sensible master of ceremonies schedules proper breaks between round of alcoholic toasting. Georgians are of the opinion that real men can hold their liquor, but they are also fond of the saying: “Those who cannot apply moderation to drinking best be shamed and forgotten”;
- they have to be able hold their pee, because leaving the supra table to go to the toilet could be seen as an affront.
It is said that a genius tamada is the sort who can fulfil all of the above conditions (they are only forgiven a lack of musical talent). A decent tamada may not know Georgian literature, poetry or folklore. A half-decent tamada can at least speak nicely, while a poor tamada has a poor grasp of how the supra sequence of activities should be followed. A bad tamada only knows how to drink a lot, while being rude to guests when trying to engage them in eating and partying.
The supra tradition leaves nothing to chance – toasting is the central feature – sadgerzelo, meaning essentially “wishing one a long and healthy life”. Again, Ryszard Kapuściński explains this in his book: toasting is a “form of conversation, etiquette and also panegyric improvisation […] The toasting lasts some minutes, up to half and hour. It is an important performance, which will later on be repeated and commented upon. The toast ought to be poetic, for life should be prettified with words. And yet, what is most important is that the toast be affirming. This is the whole point of the supra custom. All those praises and wishes are graded, filled with nuances, thousands of variations on a theme. […] In this sort of context, the eating and drinking are of secondary importance […], the diners busy toasting, following the toasts’ formulations, the temperature of the uttered words. Said toasts, although always praising and never chastising anyone, are always varied and become a form of public opinion sharing, shaping public perception, a sort of private Gallup”. It is not hard to imagine that the Georgian way of offering toasts is a true art form – the art of etiquette, reflective creativity and oratory.
It is estimated that Georgians know some 150 individual toasts. Most supras feature ten to twenty, their sequence agreed from the outset, fixed, although it can vary region to region, as well as the reasons the supra feast has been organised. Although toasts can be repeated, they never sound the same (or at least they shouldn’t). The tamada’s job is to orate original toasts, filled with creative inventiveness.
In more intimate gatherings, the toasts can be shorter and humorous at times, while during formal supras they ought to be longer and more serious. A well-raised toast can touch deeply, causing tears to flow – either through laughter or emotional delight. Tears are proof the tamada knows how to do a good job, which is why they are not a sign of weakness. Especially when hearing something as colourful and cheery as:
“A donkey was walking across a desert. Thirsty and exhausted, it spied two barrels. One contained water, the other wine. Having thought about it, he drank the water… Let us toast the fact that we are no donkeys and are drinking wine” or else “A young woman was walking along a street one evening, when she heard some footsteps behind her. Looking round, she saw a handsome boy. Looking round again, she still saw him following. She decided to wait for him to catch up – then looked back a third time – the boy was gone… Let’s drink to the idea that the workers of our city sewage works will remember to replace manhole covers over our city’s sewer network!”
Those invited to dine together should remember a few basic rules:
- We toast with wine or chacha, which is a Georgian home made spirit, possibly with cognac, never with beer, gin or any other alcohol, which would be an affront.
- Important toasts require us to stand up, though this is not true of all toasts.
- When the tamada speaks, everyone – like him – must raise their drinking vessels and hold them up in the air until the toast is done. If the speech is long, and one’s arm is weak, one can lower it gradually.
- When the tamada speaks, one should not eat or speak, seeing as this would be taken as a lack of respect.
- No drinking until the tamada utters their toast and takes the first sip of his drink.
- Guests cannot suggest toasts, for this would offend our tamada. Guests can raise toasts only when the master of ceremonies says they can, turning to the right person with the word alaverdi (ალავერდი). When allowed to speak, they toast one of the people present at the table.
- If the tamada toasts someone present at the table, that person should stand up, thank them, wait for everyone to empty their glasses and then drink to the very end in a gesture called bolomde (ბოლომდე) – meaning also “respect”.
- If the supra involves the serving of a wine-filled ram or goat horn – kantsi ( ყანწი), the tip decorated with delicate silverwork, the guest of honour must drink it all the way down – the horn cannot be put down, for the wine could spill, which would be disrespectful to the other diners.
- Toasting ends with the word gaumarjos, which means “victory” and is also a polite term meaning “Your health!”. All guests knock their glasses with the tamada.
In between subsequent toasts, Georgians discuss what was said, evaluating their contents and meaning, as well as the tamada’s performance. There is often much eating and singing – the moment is an intentional break in drinking alcohol, so as not to get too drunk too quickly. When the master of ceremonies wants to speak again, they raise their glass and changes their stance, tone of voice and gesticulation, allowing others to note that another round of toasts is coming, or else a simple wish to speak on a given subject.
There are two kinds of Supra in Georgia – differing in terms of mood, the dishes served and the subject of the toasts made:
- joyful (ლხინის სუფრა, lchinis supra, keipi) – organised for weddings, birthdays and other occasions; it is non-obligatory, and yet in reality in Georgia hardly a day goes by without a keipi supra, which is a remarkable supper in a family circle – as to the way in which such parties go on without seemingly ever ending – well, that is what Georgians are like;
- sorrowful (ჭირის სუფრა, cziris supra, kelechi) – attendance is obligatory, say following a funeral, or else on anniversaries of passing away and the day of the dead.
Toasts made during a joyful supra are called sadghegrdzelo (სადღეგრძელო). These are peans celebrating the moment, praising people, things and phenomena, thanks to which human beings can enjoy the life fate has served them up with. The following sequence is to be followed:
- Toasting God – regardless of whether the guests are religious or not, the tamada first thanks the Creator for the chance to meet at a shared table.
- Toasing peace – tamada recalls military conflicts, wishing the guests never have to experience the nightmare of war and live in peace.
- Toasting ancestors – celebrating grandparents, others dear departed, but still remembered fondly – without whom there would be no guests at the supra that day. The saints are also often mentioned by the tamada – their memory is venerated through the act of pouring wine onto bread.
- Toasting offspring – for new life born and those still to come, for children and grandchildren, in the hope that they too will one day supra and toast us.
- Toasting the event itself – drank for the event of the supra itself – the chance to meet and eat and drink together. At times, this is for a good reason: the birth of a child, passing an exam, new jobs or weddings.
- Toasting parents – for those who are still alive and deserve respect for giving life to us.
- Toasting women – all the men have to stand up, the women sitting down. The tamada orates in a way which should make the women blush, recalling why women are so important in the lives of men.
- Toasting friendship – for the priceless treasure of those who share with us our sorrows and joys. When the supra is attended solely by Georgians, they simply toast friendship. When foreigners are in attendance, the toast is for the brotherhood of nations. When Georgians and Poles come together, the toast is to 200 years of unity, the start of which is marked by the exile of Poles to the Caucasus region two centuries back.
- Toasting love – this should be poetic, and meaningful, honouring this powerful emotion.
- Toasting the nation – toasting Georgia is a fixed feature of this sequence (sakartvelos gaumarjos), as well as other nations which might be seated at the table. If the supra is being held abroad, this is a chance to express homesickness.
- Toasting memories – to all the things we will sweetly recall in years to come, such as the supra and the feelings which come with it.
- Toasting the hosts – thanks to those who organised the feast, prepared the dishes and took care of the guests. This toast is most often penultimate or the very last, signifying the coming end of the supra.
- Toasting the tamada – before the guests disperse, they thank the one who has spent so many hours ensuring they have a soulful feast, plenty of laughs, plenty to think about, tears of joy and excitement, drinking to the tamada’s ongoing health.
Toasts made during the “chiris supra”, which is the funereal or commemorative supra, are known as shesandobari (შესანდობარი). In the past, kelechi was a humble event, involving just three short and concise speeches on the subject of the dear departed. At present, this involves a much more substantial celebration, involving anything between nine and 20 toasts. Their tone tends to be sorrowful, melancholy, but also tinted with memories of beautiful moments past, especially those involving those who can no longer join the supra. The tamada refers to them metaphorically, often reciting Georgian poetry relating to visions of life and death present in the local culture. This helps us see death is an inevitable sort of sadness, while also stressing the great gift that is life. As a result, such words help bolster the living, allowing them to deal with their grief. Kelechi toasting sequence is as follows:
- Toasting God – tamada asks the Creator for the strength which can help us bear the loss of those we love.
- Toasting the departed – the master of ceremonies recalls the dear departed, their achievements and good deeds. The toast is filled with euphemisms, meant to calm the emotions at the table. We do not use words such as dead, departed, died, death – using abstract ideas instead: “the one who has just left his family behind” or else “the one who has just found a place of eternal rest in the arms of Christ the Saviour”. It is important in Georgian culture that the tamada recall only the good things about the departed and never criticises them for any flaws.
- Toasting departed family members (spouses, parents, grandparents and others) – toasting is separated into individual sections, relating to the achievements of those being celebrated, each one separately in turn, showing the dead solely in a good light.
- Toasting Georgians who died in wars and those who died abroad.
- Toasting forgotten and childless families.
- Toasting those the departed leaves behind: spouses, parents, children, siblings and other family members.
- Toasting friends and neighbours.
- Toasting those at the supra table.
- Toasting the chaplain, responsible for delivering the funeral.
- Toasting all those who were kind to the dear departed while alive.
Supra as a ritual
According to Florian Mühlfried from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, “no major development in the life of a Georgian national is possible without a feast being involved”. The lives of Georgians even today is an unending sequence of supras, those which are small (everyday suppers with the family) and those which are more sizeable (events organised for special occasions). They are a symbolic moment which sets ordinary days apart from those which are unique – especially those marking a time of transformation: marriage, birth, widowhood or promotion at work.
The oratory skill of the tamada, their talents, brilliance and skills in making reference to cultural histories enhance the meaning of experiences large and small, allowing them to be expressed more fully, to be best understood. The supra – aside from the eating, drinking, toasting, singing and dancing, all of which bring so much joy – is most of all a celebration of the spoken word, being a ritual which champions language, this symbol of human uniqueness and means of expressing thoughts, feelings, desires, giving us all the ability to mark our place in culture. Words make the heart beat faster, the senses seduced by recollections, giving the lives of Georgians and their guests a deeper, fuller meaning.
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