Karappu Ram has done it all — jumped over eight-foot-high double barricades and spun his hapless opponents around as they tried to hang on to his huge, dark hump. Almost always, Ram left the vaadivasal, the entrance to the Jallikattu bull-fight arena, with a shake of his head — sign that he had won.
Ram, his shiny black coat earning him the ‘karappu (black)’ in his name, was the designated temple bull of Rangarajapuram village near Alaganallur in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. As stud bull, he was much in demand for servicing the cows of the village and those of neighbouring villages. Since, traditionally, temple bulls are changed once in three years to prevent inbreeding, Ram was relieved of his duties as temple bull in 2014. K Suresh, his owner who is also a farmer and bull tamer, had sold Ram to his friend N Karthick, who later sold him to the Velliangiri goshala on the foothills of Siruvani hills, about 40 km from Coimbatore and many more kilometres from his home in Madurai.
At the Velliangiri shelter, Ram is now one of 204 bulls, all native breeds who spend their day tethered to two ropes, munching on hay and fodder. In a little over a year, life had changed drastically for Ram.
In May 2014, after the Supreme Court banned Jallikattu, distress sales of bulls followed in Madurai and other districts. Farmers sold their bulls for as little as
Rs 20,000 each against the asking price of Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. That’s when P Siva Ganesh, who owns a textile shop in the city, decided to “rescue them from ending up in the slaughter houses of Kerala” and bring them to his Velliangiri goshala.
Most of the Jallikattu bulls in Tamil Nadu belong to the Kangayam breed, one of the five existing pure breeds of the state. They are stud bulls like Ram, considered the most virile and now used only for mating and during Jallikattu. These native breeds were once sturdy farm hands, used for ploughing the land before the machines replaced them.
Tamil Nadu’s five native breeds are all work animals. While the bulls served as temple animals and the oxen ploughed the farms, the cows were reared for household use and for breeding. The cows, though, yield less milk, barely a litre or two, unlike north Indian and central Indian breeds that yield up to 15 litres of milk a day. For some years now, with modernisation and farm mechanisation, the native breeds have been under threat. The ban on Jallikattu, say activists who are working to restore the sport and those working to save native breeds, will complete the rout.
“Despite being a water-starved state, if farmer suicides did not shake up Tamil Nadu, it’s because we were livestock keepers. It was this livestock that sustained us. But when the tractors came in, most of the native breeds were gradually phased out. Though people had little other reason to keep them, Jallikattu was what inspired them. With the ban, that purpose too has been lost,” says Balakumar Somu, a Coimbatore-based animal rights activist and member of a Jallikattu organising committee in Madurai.
Somu says goshalas such as the one in Coimbatore is just not the place for stud bulls. “Goshalas have been taking away hundreds of bulls for a pittance from poor farmers, all in the name of conservation. Keeping them in sheds without letting them graze or mate itself is cruelty. No breed will sustain through such conservation methods,” he says.
Suresh, the first owner of Karappu Ram, says that for villagers like him, the Jallikattu bulls are “more than just animals, they are divine”.
“After we sold Ram to my friend and he sold it to the goshala, our village has been facing many setbacks. The village elders recently met and decided Ram should be brought back. We are still trying to get him back to our village temple,” he says.
After Ram was sold to the goshala, an unfortunate set of events followed in Rangarajapuram village — two bulls that succeeded Ram as temple bulls died in quick succession. The villagers saw this as some kind of divine warning so they decided to get Ram back. A group of villagers then travelled to the Coimbatore goshala, pleading for Ram to be returned. “The entire village has been asking for Ram to be brought back. I told the goshala owner that I can pay any amount for Ram. We also offered to give them two Jallikattu bulls in exchange for Ram. But they refused,” says Suresh, who even sought the police’s help to get his bull back.
“Look at the way Ram is being kept now. Tied so close to other bulls. They are not allowed to graze or mate. Wasn’t it better to send them to the slaughter houses?,” he asks.
Raja Manickam, a farm worker and bull tamer from a village near Palamedu in Madurai, says that owners often thought of their bulls as family.
“I sold my bull in 2014. Until then, he used to share the living quarters with us. The last few years were tough but some owners kept their bulls and fed them, hoping the ban will be lifted and their bulls will fight. Jallikattu bulls are a symbol of pride not just for their owners but for the villages they represent. If there’s no Jallikattu, I don’t know why people will keep these bulls,” he says.
It was this emotional support for Jallikattu that got the BJP to sense a political opportunity ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections this year. On January 8, a week before Pongal, the Centre issued a notification to allow the bull-taming sport. The Jallikattu belt of Tamil Nadu is dominated by OBC groups such as the politically powerful Thevars and the Maravars, who form a crucial vote bank.
Back at the Velliangiri goshala, Jayamani, 35, is among six workers from Madurai who came here about a year ago with his five bulls. “I sold all my bulls to the goshala and got a job too,” he says.
Jayamani knows the bulls by their names, their breeds and their villages. He walks up to ‘Virumaandi’ Ramu, the goshala’s ageing superstar. In the 2004 hit Virumaandi, Kamal Hasaan had hung onto Ramu’s hump in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, shot live among charging bulls and bull-fighters. A decade later, Ramu, now 20, seems frail. “He is old now. A 20-year-old bull is as young or old as a 40-year-old man,” says Jayamani.
Then, there’s the “killer”. Jayamani doesn’t reveal his name. “He has killed at least seven people. He used to throw people up in the air. Nobody could hang on to his hump for even a second. And from the minute he started running through the vaadivasal, he wouldn’t pause even for a moment,” says Jayamani.
That was then. ‘Killer’ now stands beside Jayamani, calmly chewing on his cud. That’s all he does these days, sharing his row with with nine other stud bulls.
K Paramasivam, 60, who looks after the sprawling farm that houses over a thousand cattle, says the bulls are not allowed to graze or mate. “If we allow them to mate, they will turn violent. But it’s not as if we are denying them their freedom. Everyday, we take 20 of them in batches for swimming and walking,” he says.
Paramasivam’s nephew Siva Ganesh, the owner of the goshala, says that it was his “pure love for animals” that made him “rescue” Jallikattu bulls. “I have some 1,400 cattle in my goshala, including 204 Jallikattu bulls. I spend around Rs 27,300 a day on the Jallikattu bulls alone and spend Rs 1.5 lakh a day on running this farm. I don’t accept any donations. I run this goshala with money from my textile shop. I don’t know how I have been managing… It’s a miracle,” he says.
However, in August last year, Siva Ganesh was in the news when the Kerala Cattle Merchants’ Association announced a strike, alleging that his men were seizing animals from their trucks in the name of animal rights and taking them to private farms in Coimbatore.
They alleged that 14 loads (each load worth around Rs 4 lakh) of cows were “stolen” by his men from Tamil Nadu’s highways. Siva Ganesh dismisses those allegations, saying, “Most of the 1,400 cattle in my goshala have been rescued from markets and trucks. We have the support of the Animal Welfare Board of India,” he says.
He also dismisses allegations that he exports the semen of these native breeds. “I am a rich man. I don’t need money from such methods. I am only protecting them from the slaughter houses,” he says.
Conservationists and those seeking to revive Jallikattu, however, disagree with the Velliangiri model of ‘conservation’.
Himakiran Anugula, an organic farmer, entrepreneur and trustee of Senaapathy Kanngayam Cattle Research Foundation, says keeping stud bulls tied day and night is the “highest form of cruelty”. “They are stud bulls and they need their space and shouldn’t be tied so close to each other. They need to mate at least once a week, sometimes more. When the Supreme Court banned Jallikattu in 2014, several bulls were sold by farmers and bought by traders from Kerala. If the ban continues for one or two years, we are in great danger of losing native breeds such as Pulikulam forever,” he says.
Somu, the animal rights activist who is “striving to restore Jallikattu”, says, “When the Velliangiri goshala purchased these bulls from farmers in distress, their claim was conservation. They promised that they would return these bulls whenever the owners asked for them. But I have been trying to help these villagers get back their bulls for several weeks now, but strangely, the goshala has been refusing,” he says.
Goshala staff say that after the January 8 Central notification lifting the ban on Jallikattu, many people approached them for the bulls. “The villagers were ready to pay anything to take back their bulls. But we decided not to give them away as they could be again tortured,” says Nizamuddin, one of the caretakers of the goshala.
G Tamilvendan from Alaganallur village, 18 km from Madurai town, is glad he didn’t give away his bulls, Maruthu and Ramu. But he isn’t sure what the future holds for him and his bulls. “The tractor came and replaced our bulls from our farms. Now the court has banned Jallikattu. But we cannot replace our traditional festivals and beliefs with machines, can we? What do we do now?” he asks.
The Jallikattu Belt
Mainly the districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul.
The game, gain
Besides the pride involved in being the owner of the best bull, the bull owner who wins the duel gets a dhoti, towel, betel leaves, bananas and token cash — rarely more than Rs 101 — on a silver plate. Mixer-grinders, refrigerators and furniture have been added to the list of prizes over the years. Jallikattu events had come down from around 6,000 a decade ago to just two dozen in 2014, when the last Jallikattu happened.
The case so far
In 1991, the Environment Ministry had banned the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs. In 2011, the ministry issued a fresh notification, which specifically included “bulls”. In May 2014, a petition by animal rights organisation PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) led the the Supreme Court to rule that “bulls cannot be allowed as performing animals, either for Jallikattu events or bullock-cart races in the state of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country.” By doing so, the SC upheld the Centre’s 2011 notification. In January 2016, the Centre, seeking to overturn the SC ban on Jallikattu, modified its 2011 order and issued a notification saying Jallikattu, a sport traditionally played in Tamil Nadu during Pongal, can be held this year. After animal rights groups and AWBI challenged the move in the SC, the court gave an interim stay, preventing Jallikattu.
AGAINST: In their petition to court, AWBI and PETA had submitted photographs and video footage of animals being tortured and injured during Jallikattu events. They argued that bull taming events have no religious or cultural or historical significance in Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra.
FOR: Jallikattu supporters say that the sport encourages the conservation of native breeds. Jallikattu, they say, is part of rural tradition and that animals are rarely tortured.