Jallikattu: Man vs Bull; Is Tradition Above Safety?

Posted on January 31, 2012 in Society

By Ashish Kumar:

Jallikattu, Indian counterpart of Spanish game of Bull racing, (although die-hard fans would argue that Jallikattu is different from Bull racing in the sense that here matadors don’t kill the bull, just tame it and there are no weapons involved) is a bull taming game played in many parts of rural Tamil Nadu as part of Pongal celebrations on the day of MattuPongal. The word Jallikattu comes from sallikassu (coins) and kattu (a package) which signifies a prize-tag hanging to horns of bull. A well preserved seal found at Mohenjodaro signifies that the game was popular during Indus Valley civilization. In the modern days, the sport has not lost its charm among the villagers but has come under criticism from animal activists and a set of regulations under which the sport is to be conducted, have been passed. A festive mood prevails all over around the Jallikattu arena on the day. In the villages of Palamedu and Allanganallur near Madurai, tens of thousands of people flock from all over the Tamil Nadu to watch the spectacle. Vendors set-up stalls of sweets and meat and do brisk business. Bulls are washed in the nearby ponds and decorated.While fighters try to control the ferocious bull, they sometimes bite the dust, sometimes get gored by the animal and rarely be seated at the bull-hump, the most coveted throne that day. The crowd shouts at every triumph of the fighter and goes berserk.

The rules of the game are simple- fighter has to pounce on the running ferocious bull and stick to its hump while the recalcitrant bull would try to dethrone you from there, put you around its toes and in some cases crush you. The game is extremely dangerous. The bull can attack the fighter with its horns or pulverize the fighter with its mighty toes. Bull can also go out of control and can kill the spectators . Deaths have occurred in past and injuries occur in large numbers. There are high chances of sustaining serious injuries to head, spine, neck, chest, abdomen, thighs and legs. On the other hand, the eyes of bull are often rubbed with chilli powder or they are fed arrack (a distilled alcoholic drink made of fermented sap of coconut flowers or grains) prior to the event to enhance their ferocity during the events.While the villagers of Tamil Nadu insist on organizing this game every year during Pongal, in-spite of the fact that many bull-tamers succumb to injuries caused by sharpened bull-horns, the animal lovers and activists have been at the forefront of campaigns against it labeling it cruel to bulls.

The villagers keep the sports very close to their heart and get a lot of pride in playing it.They think that it is their duty to continue the tradition and if not done properly would be harbinger of famine and epidemics in the village. If not racing, the bull, according to villagers’ belief, has to at-least come to VaadiVaasal (entry point to fighting area) to stop the wrath of the village deity. Those who lose their lives are not mourned upon because they are considered brave and martyrs. Animal activists comment that while world over cruel events of this kind are being banned, Tamil Nadu is going back in time by letting this game continue. In March 2006, Madurai bench of the High Court banned Jallikattu but one year hence, the judgement was set aside by the Division Bench considering the popular demand and protests from villagers and regulatory measures to conduct the event were suggested. After being discussed on platforms like Supreme Court, Parliament and Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Regulation Act was passed to regulate this wild sport. The act mandates written permission from District Collector, double-barricaded arena to avoid injuries to bystanders and spectators, drug-test of bulls to rule out the use of performance-enhancing drugs, tamers being enrolled, medically examined and wearing identifiable dress, entire event being videographed and a deposit of Rs. 2 lakhs per tamer to the Collector by the organizer among many things.

This is one of the live examples of the fact that sometimes tradition and belief wins over logic in our country. It is heartening and alarming at the same time that villagers are prioritizing tradition over safety (heartening just because they love their tradition so much, which is required but some things are better let go). It is a concoction of pride, belief and fear that sustain this ancient ritual and adds to the exoticism quotient of India, which no doubt if rationally thought over, should be banned.

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This is nothing less than absolute in-human cruelty to the animals and a shame on people who call this a ‘sport’


‘Jalikatu’ was
part of the yearly harvest fesitval, Pongal, in which when villages
celebrated their crop. And what was the best way to celebrate? To put
fifty or so men in an enclosure and run hundreds of angry bulls
through the middle, one at a time. Dressed in what looked like a
soccer uniform, the barefooted men would try to catch hold of a bulls
hump or horns, and be dragged for as long as possible. Should they
prove victorious, the most persistent bull barnacle would have a
wondrous prize thrown at him from the commentators office, two
stories about the ring. The reward could be one of three items; a
bike, a huge stainless steel cooking pot or a metal cabinet. Winners
had the most trouble with the cabinet.

At least, I’m
pretty sure they were the winners. There were frequent changes to the
games rules- which I eventually discovered were not actually rules at
all, merely the criteria of chance. For instance, if you had a rope,
you were completely within your rights to attempt to use it to snag
the bull. Or, if the bull pen broke, participants might have to take
on two bulls at once.

While not everyone
had rope, some people did win two prizes. My understanding of the
game was also slowed by not being able to see anything. The fence was
surrounded by fences six meters high, upon which numerous makeshift
stands lent. I paid for a spot only to find it just as difficult to
see through the many paying spectators as it was to see in the sea of
bodies below. Somehow I managed to find myself a spot atop the roof
of a friendly local’s truck, and I enjoyed the view of men being
attacked by bulls for an hour or so.

All the farmers in
the region had brought their best bulls to participate in the event
and had the opportunity to win money if their bull performed well-
although I have no idea what constituted a good performance. People
yelled and money changed hands. It was exciting. Each beast was
painted in brightly coloured powder and their owners asked me to pat
some of their heads and put more powder on for good luck. Eventually
some other farmers approached a bull I was touching and began a
heated argument seeming to involve me as the subject. I am not sure
if I was helping give an unfair advantage, or if he perhaps thought I
was unlucky, but my popularity as a bovine deity ceased from there
on. I took it as my cue to leave.


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