Latin America & Caribbean

In pictures: The ancient ballgame making a comeback

Mexican Uriel Ordaz, player of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama", in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP

A group of young Mexicans is reviving an ancient ballgame once played by the Aztecs, Maya and Incas.

Ulama was played in Mesoamerica more than five centuries ago before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area in 1519.

Players wearing special belts and loincloths pass a rubber ball with their hips. The solid ball can weigh up to 4kg (9lb).

Ricardo Campos, a player of the pre-Columbian ballgame Ulama, hits a solid rubber ball with his hip Image copyright AFP
A man plays a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- which rule is to hit a "Ulamaloni" (solid rubber ball) with the hip or shoulder, during a match at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP
A man plays a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- which rule is to hit a "Ulamaloni" (solid rubber ball) with the hip or shoulder, during a match at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP

While there are believed to have been many different versions of the game, most are thought to have involved rival teams facing each other, each confined to its half of the court and passing the ball from team to team without dropping it.

Men play a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Tlachtli" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- which rule is to hit a "Ulamaloni" (solid rubber ball) with the hip or shoulder, during a match at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019. Image copyright AFP

In some versions the game was played inside a stone courtyard with vertical hoops, which play a similar role to those in basketball.

Dancers and players perform ahead of a game of Ulama in Mexico City on 21 August, 2019. Image copyright AFP

While there has been a revival of ulama in some indigenous areas of Mexico, the capital did not have an ulama court until very recently when a cultural centre built one at an old rubbish dump in the Azcapotzalco neighbourhood.

Emmanuel Kakalotl is a coach at the new court. "The game had been forgotten," he told Agence France Press news agency.

"It was toppled 500 years ago, but now we're raising it up again," he explains.

Dancers perform ahead of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- which rule is to hit a "Ulamaloni" (solid rubber ball) with the hip or shoulder, at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP

At the new court, women are also taking up the ancient practice.

Twenty-five-year old Beatriz Campos is one of them. "We're women warriors at heart, because it isn't easy. Not just anyone can play this sport. It takes a lot of practice, and your body takes a beating," she says.

Before the match she performs a ceremony burning fragrant tree resin.

Mexican Beatriz Campos, player of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- performs the "Copal" ceremony ahead of a match at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019. Image copyright AFP

Ulama is believed to have had ritual and religious connotations and members of the group playing in Mexico City today don elaborate outfits to perform ceremonies before taking to the court.

Mexican players Fernando Lopez (left) and Jorge de Jesus Trujillo (right) pose with the rubber ball Image copyright AFP

They represent different mythological deities such as Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead.

Mexican dancer Isaac Luna, who represents "Mictlantecuhtli" (deity of the dead in the Mexica mythology) in a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language-, poses for a photograph during a photo session at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP
Mexican dancer Jorge de Jesus Trujillo, who represents "Mictlantecuhtli" (deity of the dead in the Mexica mythology) in the pre-Columbian ballgame Ulama poses for a photograph in Mexico City on 21 August, 2019. Image copyright AFP

The game has been embraced by those playing it at the new court in Mexico City, some of whom say that rather than them "rescuing" ulama, the game has rescued them by giving them a new focus.

Mexican Elena Garcia, dancer of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- and whose costume represents her name "Aquetzalli Tlayotzin" (precious water heart of the earth), poses for a photograph during a photo session at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019. Image copyright AFP
Mexican Enrique Villegas, player of a pre-Columbian ballgame called "Ulama" -in Nahuatl indigenous language- poses for a photograph hitting a "Ulamaloni" (solid rubber ball) with his hip, during a photo session at the FARO Poniente cultural centre in Mexico City on August 21, 2019 Image copyright AFP

All photos subject to copyright.

Related Topics

More on this story