A tradition which almost disappeared 100 years ago, Castells – Catalan for castles – are a unique cultural phenomenon particular to Catalunya, declared UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010.
Though I had heard of the Castellers before, I first experienced the thrill of the human towers competition at Barcelona’s birthday last September.
Origins of Castells
First documented in the 1700s, the origins of this Catalan tradition of building human towers dates back to a small town called Valls, some 40 km away from Barcelona, that the inhabitants started building human towers.
Some say that the castells came to being through the performance of migrant workers who wanted to make some extra cash. What used to be a paid gig at annual festivals now bloomed into a highly popular sight at numerous fiestas. And as we will later see, even started to become a display of the Catalan independence spirit.
Another theory links the castells back to an old custom called Baile de los Valencianos, performed around religious processions. These Bailes – or dances – ended with the construction of a human tower; as time passed, the towers grew more and more separated from the dance, until finally becoming independent.
Catalans supposedly picked up on the tradition and ignored the dances, focusing instead on making the castells taller and more original. So by the 18th century, their popularity spread across Catalunya and it was informally adopted as a sort of national emblem.
Fun fact: You probably weren’t aware that there’s actually a very similar tradition to the Catalan Castells halfway across the globe – in India!
Admittedly, the Indian human tower building tradition called Dahi Handi has deeper religious roots – in honor of Krishna. Legend has it that people started hiding their dairy products from the thief-y hands of little Krishna, by hanging them high out.
From Rural Roots to Urban Fame
The building of Castells remained, for the most part, a rural tradition, until it was highly popularized by adoption in the big cities like Barcelona, which started its first Castellers clubs in the 1960s.
As The Castellers de Barcelona kept on refining their technique, the towers became higher and higher.While in the 1970s, 7-level castells were built, with training, passion and technique refinement the castells have reached higher levels.
Of the sixty teams of Castellers officially registered in Catalunya, the maximum level of difficulty (nine levels) has only been achieved by 10 of the groups – or colles.
Also, it seems like many groups have now started performing abroad, in cities like London, New York or Shanghai, making their tradition known to the world.
The Tower Levels
The towers built two centuries ago very much resembled the ones we see today – meaning the basic structure of a castell barely changed with time. What did change though, was its height.
A Castell always consists of three parts. The base is the so-called Pinya, a relatively large ring, onto which the weight of the load above is distributed – and which stabilizes the structure. This ring also softens the fall of the Castellers, in the event the tower falls apart. On top of this base, the actual tower is built.
The tronc, Catalan for trunk, consists of several levels with a specific number of people. Depending on the number and distribution of the up to 9 people of a ring, each Castell has a name of its own.
Climbing to the top of the tower is only allowed for kids, because of their low weight. They form the pom de dalt or the tower dome.
The traditional outfit if a casteller consists of white trousers, a black sash and a shirt in the color of the team. The ones you see above are the famous Castellers de Vilafranca.
A Teamwork Technique Turned National Statement
“Strength, balance, courage and common sense.”
Such is the motto of the Castellers.
The technique of building a castell demonstrates in full the strength of a tight-knit community where collective power can move mountains – or in this case, build them.
Each casteller has his own well-defined function and position within the castell – although, to the untrained eye, the tower may seem to take shape randomly.
Once the base is set up, the members climb up in a pre-defined order and form the first rings. The strongest have to carry most of the weight at the bottom, and the lightest go up into the tower.
The child who goes on the top of the tower (evidently wearing a safety helmet) is called enxaneta. They are fascinating to watch, as the tower rises: with the flexibility of a forest monkey, they’ll climb atop the shoulders of their elders, in a race against time (and equilibrium) to reach the top and win the competition.
Once he/she reaches the top they make a standing gesture, arm shot straight up in a sign of victory, holding 4 fingers.
For some, this is a gesture of Catalan pride symbolizing the 4 stripes on the Catalan flag. Others will say it simply signals the four values in the Castellers’ motto.
The silent crowds will erupt in cheers of noisy appreciation as the child starts sliding down the tower, in the most fluid motions. Watching sixty men & women work their way towards the skies, with no other support than one another, is an impressive sight.
And the locations chosen for their public appearance certainly contribute to the charm – like the recent castell build right inside the Sagrada Familia!
From Almost Extinct to Unesco Heritage
The three years of civil war in the 1030s, as well as the subsequent dictatorship, were a serious setback for human tower-building, which, despite all adversity, kept going. Under Franco’s rule, a ban on human towers was instituted, even though at the time the castells hadn’t really become a symbol of Catalan identity but simply a local tradition.
But it was at the end of the dictatorship that human towers experienced a social change that would make them what they are today. After a couple of rough decades, the tradition was slowly restored back to normal and human tower-building gained fresh energy.
The world of human towers underwent a real explosion during the nineties, with an increase in the number of clubs, more media attention, and achievements such as the first ten-level castells in 1998.
The recognition of castells as Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010 confirmed the prestige of human tower-building, which, over the last few years, has extended over almost all the territory of Catalonia.
As mentioned before, during the last decade the Catalan human towers have also become known internationally, not only through performances by Catalan clubs throughout the world.
Like that time 300 Castellers were taken to Singapore by Qatar Airways and the Catalonia Tourism Board. That particular group, Minyons de Terrassa, had recently broken the world record for the biggest human tower ever built.
Check out the 3 teams competing in the Festa de Merce last year:
If you want to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the many performances of the Castellers in Barcelona and beyond, check out their 2018 Performance Calendar here.
You can also check out the entire history at The Human Tower Museum of Catalonia, located in Valls.