Many hands make light work, as the old saying goes. This is the principle that Castellers base themselves on, in the most literal sense. Those who might have caught a glimpse of the rather impressive “human towers” may admire the structures involved, the precision that’s needed, let alone the sheer amount of strength – but it’s much more than physical power. Rooting a relatively youthful two centuries into Catalonia’s culture, the castells are a symbol many Catalans proudly identify themselves with.
In the Southern province of Tarragona, the tradition stemmed from the little-known town Valls, where it grew to be a popular competition around Tarragona until the late 20th century. It was then that many new associations grew and were founded throughout Catalonia. The custom, still tottering with baby steps, was elected for the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010. In other words, Castells are now an established form of physical recognition by Catalans as an integral feature in their identity, with the intention of transmitting this further from generation to generation in light of Catalunya’s continuity and solidarity, as well as visible evidence of social understanding of one another.
The days on which the castellers compete transform plazas with a couple of locals sipping their mid-morning coffee and reading the newspaper into a densely populated area with all present admirably watching on, relating their own identity and thoughts to the coming formation of towering beings. The tower takes shape from different groups of people with different, but equally important, responsibilities.
Most castell associations (colles) have two weekly training days throughout the intensive months of April to November. During the Winter season (November to March) the colles may lighten the load a little – but not completely. Still, members meet fortnightly for training. At the top of every castle, a child, known as the canalla, climbs up planes of others; the canalla starts special training before the general training for other members. How do I know all of this information? I joined a colla myself. Just kidding – I’ve been grilling a friend about this since our first conversation together, but he didn’t seem to mind. Generally, people get into the associations through (funnily enough) association – someone who knows someone who practices it already and encourages them to do the same.
There is no room for improvisation when doing castells. A small selection of people with advanced knowledge about the structures plan with precision each part of the castell, which is separated into three definite parts: the pinya (base), the tronc (trunk) and the pom de dalt (the crown of the castle). As the foundation, most people (around 90% of the colla) are located to be in the base, which is again channelled into different positions and roles – everything is planned. The weight and height of each participant influences the position people take in the base, and people can spend their entire castell career in the base depending on the factors at play. As a participant’s knowledge and training grows, so may their position in the castell; some move up into the trunk with time.
Witnessing the ascent of a seven-level castell is compelling and a little bit heart-sinking. As the castle takes its physical form and the canalla finds their way up towards the top of the tower, everyone who is watching falls silent, as in you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silent. The intensity grows and the human castles begin to breathe life.
Acts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things seem to be more and more ignored with each day that passes. The human castle reminds us that it is still possible to break down the mental and metaphysical walls we’ve given ourselves, and that we are, in fact, capable of more when we work together than we ever could imagine alone.