For Tamils, the harvest festival pongal is not complete without jallikattu, a bull-taming sport practiced widely in villages in Tamil Nadu. Every year, on the second day of Pongal festival, termed maatu pongal, thousands from across Tamil Nadu gather to watch the fight between man and beast. This event is more prominent in Alanganallur in Madurai, which is the most famous town for jallikattu in Tamil Nadu.
On the day of maatu pongal, bulls that participate in the fight are bathed and decorated and brought to the huge arena. Once the game starts, the raging bulls are released into the arena, where men lay in wait to win over him. Sometimes the game is over if the opponent manages to hang on to the hump for about 150 metres. In some cases there are flags tied to the sharpened horn of the bull and the games is declared over only when someone pulls the flag.
But it is not as easy as it sounds. These bulls are violet and are strong enough to throw you off, which in some cases has resulted in death, if you are not careful. Every year there will be few casualties and sometimes even bulls sustain injuries. Yet, men play risking their own lives and that of the bull because for Tamil men it is a matter of pride. For them, it is a sport that showcases their manliness.
While not many people in the State have witnessed jallikattu, movies like Murattu kalai starring Tamil actor Rajinikanth romanticise the notion of bull-taming, where the strongest not only wins the game but also the love of village women. So for Tamils, it is an ultimate showdown that will determine their masculinity. Even if they are injured, for them it is a scar they are proud to display.
Jallikattu is an ancient sport practiced during Tamil classical period (1000-400 BC). It was common among Aayars who lived in the ‘Mullai’ geographical region, which primarily consists of forests, during Sangam period. There is not much evidence found on why this particular event became a platform for displaying bravery. But a seal from Indus Valley civilisation found in National Museum, New Delhi depicts the existence of this sport since ancient times. Also, a cave painting of kaolin found near Madurai of a lone man trying to control a bull, is estimated to be 2500 years old. So this tradition has been a part of our culture for quite some centuries.
But this game has come under scanner from animal right activists like People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) since 2004. Activists argue that the sport in addition to causing human casualties harm the bulls as well, prior to the fight and also during it. Kamal Haasan’s movie ‘Virumandi’ revolves around the sport and has shown what these bulls have to undergo before they are ready for the actual fight. This might include giving liquor to bull to increase their performance. The issue was taken to the Supreme court, which gave a ruling in 2014 to ban the sport citing animal welfare issues. But on 8 January, 2016, the Government of India passed an order exempting jallikattu from all performances where bulls can not be used, effectively reversing the ban. However, on 14 January 2016, the Supreme Court of India upheld its ban on the event, leading to protests all over Tamil Nadu. This of course did not sit very well among Tamils, for whom it is a matter of pride.
Jallikattu protests in 2017
So on 16 January 2017 people from Alanganallur, a district in Madurai famed for bull-taming, staged a protest against the SC ban on jallikattu, resulting in arrest. This seemed to have triggered Tamil sentiments and many began to protest in small numbers starting with Marina beach in Chennai. Social media like twitter was abuzz with tweets about protests. So what started as a small group to protest against the arrest and ban on jallikattu soon turned into an uprising with thousands gathering in Marina beach. Most of them being students and IT professionals. This is unique because for the first time the State witnessed a spectacle, where a protest was staged without any interference by political parties.
When I went to cover protests for my paper on January 17, the sheer volume surprised me. For the protesters were mostly college students and IT professionals who had come bunking classes and taking off from work. I also happened to meet breeders and yesteryear jallikattu participants who shared with me why the sport was important.
People in villages like Alanganallur have been breeding and training bulls for this sport for generations. Ponnurangam is from one such family. He is in his early fifties. But when he was young, he was a regular participant of jallikattu. “We take care of our bulls 365 days of the year. They are like our own child. We cannot imagine harming him while raising,” says Ponnurangam. When I spoke to another bull-tamer Kumar, he said, “All we have to do is hold on to a hump for few metres. If we are able to keep up then we win otherwise the bull wins. I do not understand what is the cruelty in this. If this is cruelty they should ban horse-racing too,” he said, fuming.
Bulls trained specifically for this is not just to win the game but also for breeding. Ponnurangam said, “We always use the bull that wins to breed. The trained bulls have the best genes and they produce the best offspring. When you ban this sport, you are not only stopping an event but it is an act that will decimate native bulls. There are already very few in India and banning jallikattu is not in the right direction.”
There is some truth in what Ponnurangam said. Native breeds are on the decline or I should say nearly extinct. Banning jallikattu will have an negative impact and might as well wipe out the native bulls. But not is not the only factor. The milk from native bulls belong to A2 type, suitable for Indian climatic conditions. With the proliferation of imported Jersey cows that produce A1 type milk, which is not ideal for Indians and increase the chance of diabetes as their make in different, there is high dependence on foreign imports, according to a few reports I read.
In short the protest was a culmination of several issues that made the youth stand up to what they though was their right. It is admirable, as these protests were largely peaceful, barring traffic congestion in Chennai and sporadic incidents.
But I’m not so sure what the outcome might be. It is the Supreme Court, the highest judicial forum, ruling they are up against. Though I agree that banning jallikattu is probably not a good decision, given that it has been a part of Tamil tradition since ancient times, I wonder if going against the SC rule will do any good. Promulgating an ordinance that will go against the SC order not only undermines the authority of the final court but also does not make the country look good.
With the way this movement is gathering momentum and many organisations and trade unions observing day long bandh tomorrow, the situation is sure getting out of hand. I hope there is some resolution that could end the uprising peacefully.