Human Towers of Catalunya

“Strength, balance, courage, and common sense!”

“Força, equilibri, valor i seny!” This is the rallying cry and motto for the gravity-defying and spectacular human towers, or castells, constructed by the people of Catalunya. I live in the ancient Catalan city of Tarragona, in northeastern Spain, where the castells are tightly woven into our cultural and social daily life, and I can tell you that this motto also defines the essence of the Catalan people. It was here, in the province of Tarragona, over three hundred years ago, that the tradition of building human towers was first documented in 1712, at the Ball dels Valencians in the city of Valls.

Today, there are many festivals and competitions held throughout Catalunya every year. The most important of these is held every two years in Tarragona, and is known as the Concurs de Castells. A live audience, tens of thousands strong, gather for an adrenaline-fuelled and emotional experience, as they watch the various competing teams, known as collas, attempt to build and dismantle the highest human tower, some reaching over 13 metres high.

In Catalan, the word castell means castle, and just like its stone counterpart, the foundations for each human tower are critical. The first step for each team is to slowly and carefully construct a tightly woven pinya — a crowded and stunning base that is often made up of hundreds of people. The castellers who make up the pinya are usually men and they also have an important role to cushion the fall of lighter castellers in upper levels, if the tower collapses.

Once it is confirmed that the pinya is ready, a band will begin to play the traditional Toc de Castells music. As a tense hush falls over the crowd, the upper layers of the tower are then built as quickly as possible in order to put the least possible strain on lower castellers, who bear most of the weight. Person by person, these remarkable structures grow, as those castellers already within the tower grimace and shake with the effort, as they concentrate intensely on holding as steady and strong as they can. A tower is considered fully assembled when the enxaneta, a child and the topmost person in the tower, climbs into place at the top and raises one hand with four fingers held out, in a gesture said to symbolise the Catalan flag.

During each competition, the higher and more challenging a tower’s construction, the more points a team will receive. Today, castells can reach an incredible nine or ten levels high, and there are a number of different types of structures. For instance, a pilar contains one person per level, while a torre contains three. There can be up to five people per level. The inclusion of women in the sport, during the 1980s, is credited with allowing the castells to be built lighter and stronger, allowing teams to reach these new heights.

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To be considered a success, the assembly and disassembly of a castell must be done in complete succession. The disassembly, done amidst the cheering of the crowd, is often the most treacherous stage of the event, and is when most collapses take place. There is a great sense of responsibility exercised within the community and it is rare for serious accidents to happen, with a great deal of care being taken to practice for falls at all levels of the tower.

The fierce expressions of joy or despair among both the team members and the spectators, depending on the success of each tower, are quite incredible, and these competitions are always intense and emotionally-charged events.

Traditionally, castellers will wear white trousers, a black sash called a faixa, a bandana, known as a mocador, and a shirt in a single color, representing their team or colla. The most important part of their outfit, the sash around their middle, helps to support the lower back and is used by other castellers as a crucial handhold or foothold when climbing to higher levels of the tower.

The length of a sash can vary from a metre and a half to twelve metres, and it will be shorter for lighter members of the team who must climb the tower. Castellers will always go barefoot to make climbing as comfortable as possible for all members of the team and for extra sensitivity when balancing.

In 2010, Catalunya’s castells were declared by UNESCO to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

For me, our human towers are one of the most unusual and stunning cultural traditions worldwide. The positive values they transmit, the people they involve, and their important meaning for Catalan identity, make them one of our strongest cultural symbols. Attending one of the many live festivals or competitions in our region is an experience you will never forget.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

DAVID OLIETE

Born in Tarragona, lived in Cardiff and Barcelona. Photographer, traveler and filmmaker.