On a torrid summer afternoon, four bulls laze in a corral at Karuppukkal, a village 20 km from Madurai that is home to the Dhonis and the Tendulkars of jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming sport banned by the Supreme Court early this month, following a long and fierce battle between animal welfare activists and patrons of the game. Here, 13-year-old Appu, of the Puliakolam breed, native to Tamil Nadu, grunts to himself in sleepy indolence.
Tackled successfully just four or five times in his decade-long career, Appu has, in his heyday, gored strong men to death and garnered a fan following across a dozen agrarian districts in the state where jallikattu is still the highlight of the harvest festival in January. To Appu’s left, Viralipatti Sevalai, the brown offspring of an Umbalchery bull crossbred with a native cow, shows off the bowed horns that have deterred every single man who tried to mount him.
Built like a muscle car, the 10-year-old, as-yet-unbeaten bull has forged his own myth, and his lineage is among the most coveted by native cattle breeders in Tamil Nadu. But should the ban on jallikattu come into effect — ending a 4,000-year-old tradition canonised in Tamil literature and popular culture — bulls like him will not retire at the top of their game. They will languish instead in goshalas or await slaughter, claims Rathina Mani, a member of the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Peravai, a group of bull owners and patrons that has led a seven-year-long campaign in favour of jallikattu.
On May 7, when an SC bench ruled that the sport harmed the animals and constituted an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act, the judgment touched off a firestorm in the Tamil heartland. “During jallikattu, many animals are observed to engage in a flight response as they try to run away from the arena when they experience fear or pain, but cannot do this since the area is completely enclosed.
Jallikattu demonstrates a link between the actions of humans and the fear, distress and pain experienced by bulls,” the judgment said. Those associated with the sport argue that the bulls, most of them native breeds, would not exist if it wasn’t for jallikattu. “The allegations are baseless. These bulls are prized and cared for,” Mani says. “A star bull can sell for up to Rs 1.5 lakh. Shrugging off a 70-kg tamer is no big deal
for the animal. Draught cattle are castrated and worked to death, but jallikattu bulls are treated like gods — they are worshipped, never tortured.”
Since March 2006, when a judge directed the Tamil Nadu government to prevent cruelty to animals in the form of rekala (bullock cart) race and other games involving cattle, jallikattu is no longer the rogue rodeo event it once was. The Peravai claims there have been no deaths in the arena since 2007; the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) says there were dozens. This year, each of the 20-odd events — down from over a hundred in the early 2000s — in Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and other districts was closely monitored for safety and animal rights violations.
The regulations are the result of a steadfast campaign by PETA and the AWBI, which alleged animal rights violations at some of the most high-profile venues — Palamedu and Alaganallur in Madurai district, among them — citing evidence that chilli powder was used to agitate bulls that were already terrified by the crowds surrounding them. Stakeholders in the sport, however, say there is no scope for foul play within the present framework. “There used to be hundreds of smaller events across the state and it was indeed an unregulated sport. Now there are 600-odd bulls participating in each event and lakhs of people, including animals rights activists and district administration officials, gather to watch,” says Balakumar Somu, a former IT executive with HP, who moved base from Singapore to Coimbatore in 2006 to document jallikattu events.
Every bull has a registration number painted on its freshly-filed horns and is inspected for abuse and performance-boosting drugs by government-appointed doctors just before it enters the vaadi vaasal (the narrow gate to the arena) as well as after the game. Eight-feet-high double barricades are erected to safely cordon off the animal’s path, where tamers in colourful jerseys wait with bated breath to tackle it by its hump — not by the tail, neck or horns, which will lead to disqualification — and desperately try to hang on for about 50 ft, or a few seconds, until the bull crosses the finish line. Most bulls just sprint off, but the most playful among them, raised on a diet of cottonseed, coconut, brinjal and dates, are rambunctious, kicking up dirt, bucking wildly and daring well-built men with their 350-400 kg bulk, as families watch from their rooftops, cheering them on.
Traditionally, the game has built bridges between communities — even today, the village hosting the event extends personal invitations to bull owners across the state — but it has also indulged the rancour and the recklessness of Tamil youth. “Thirty years ago, it was all about honour and protocol. We dreaded the indignity of having our bulls tamed. There were long-standing feuds between villages that tried to tame or buy each other’s cattle. Women married the bravehearts who could tame the fiercest bulls. Today, we are a rational network of jallikattu lovers,” says P Rajasekhar, president of the Jallikattu Peravai, and the owner of a dozen bulls. He organised this year’s massive jallikattu at Sakkudi near Madurai, attended by a record 911 bulls with 600 tamers challenging them. “We expected more regulations from the apex court; a complete ban has left us shocked. We urge the Tamil Nadu government to file a petition in the Supreme Court,” he says.
Men will die and set themselves on fire if there is no jallikattu, says Chinna Goundar, 53, of Manapparai, a village in Tiruchirappalli famed for its crisp murukku and the cattle market where over 2,500 cows and bulls are bought and sold every week. Since the apex court verdict, over 50 jallikattu bulls have been sold at throwaway prices (under Rs 18,000 per bull) with most of them headed to slaughterhouses, he says. “Having a jallikattu bull is a matter of pride and this tradition goes back several generations. With hay and cattle feed becoming expensive, we now spend over Rs 100 a day on a single bull and thousands more to take it to events. If the game is banned, we won’t have a reason to raise bulls anymore,” says the cattle trader, who also operates a minibus service in the district.
Seven bulls and over a dozen milch cows and calves rest under the shade of acacias on his 10-acre parcel of land, where he lives with his three brothers and their families in a modest four-room house. His wife and children beam with pride at the spoils from this year’s jallikattu — cots, bicycles, silver coins and a Videocon fridge that is still in its original packing. “We have no use for a fridge. A jallikattu bull isn’t raised for gain. It is like a god to us and we anoint it with kumkum and turmeric,” Goundar says. Beyond the horse stables, in a quiet corner of the arid plot, there is a shrine to Ramu, his father’s bull that was unbeaten throughout its career and buried with much fanfare upon its death. “We worship the spirit of Ramu even now. Animal rights activists will not connect with the bulls the way we do,” he says.
Modern jallikattu may no longer be a combustible mix of passion and revenge, but it is still studded with stories of bravado. G Anand, a 20-year-old from Ponmalai, one of the four zones of Tiruchirappali city corporation, has been tackling bulls for five years now. Petite and laid-back, he is an unlikely challenger. Anand works at the city airport, and every January, invents a new excuse to disappear for days on the trail of the toughest bulls along with a group of friends from Tiruchirappalli, who are said to be among the best in the game. In 2004, the Aviyur Marai, a fearsome beast, killed his uncle. Anand swore then to defeat the bull — and he did, in 2011. “He is a brave lad,” says Chellaiah, a railways employee, whose son Rajesh, 23, is Anand’s friend. Chellaiah raises three bulls and his two sons and their friends are all avid bull tamers. “Learning to hug a bull is like learning to ride a two-wheeler. All of us must learn it on our own, it is part of growing up,” he says. Dozens of jallikattu jerseys litter an iron cot at his house in the railway colony of Ponmalai. One of his protégées, Ansari, 24, a safety officer with a construction company in Chennai, says he quit eating beef when he started tackling bulls four years ago. “Some of my friends in Chennai and Bangalore think we are crazy. They would rather watch TV. But we are simply in love with these animals. And I think interest among youth, even urban youth, is only growing,” says Ansari, who promptly posts pictures of his latest “conquests” on Facebook.
Jallikattu is inseparable from the social, cultural and religious fabric of the people of Tamil Nadu, says Salai Kanakaraj, a bull owner and expert handler from Pudukkottai district. And this fabric is already fraying at the edges. “Joint families that stayed together to tend to their bulls, which require constant attention and care, are soon going to fall apart,” he says. Bulls are capricious animals, Kanakaraj says. Some fume after consuming a sack of brinjal, others enjoy lounging under a fan, listen to rap music and are pampered with hot water baths. At 24, Kanakaraj can already spot the bulls fit to be groomed for the sport. “If they have wide hooves, they are likely to be playful and sporty,” he says. “A month or so before Pongal, we allow them to swim in the river and train them with dummies made of hay. The bull must not let anyone hang on to its body, and it must return to its handler. It is never incited at the vaadi vaasal. The moment its handler loosens the nose rope, it rushes out into the arena and shakes off anyone who tries to climb it,” says Kanakaraj.
Now with the ban looming large, there are fears that native cattle breeds will die out. Chennai-based animal rights activist Gauhar Azeez, a former member of the National Commission on Cattle, who now runs the Bharatiya Prani Mitra Sangh, estimates there were about 5,000 native, drought-resistant bulls like Kangeyam and Puliakolam in Tamil Nadu back in 2006, before the jallikattu guidelines came into effect. “Now there are about 2,000,” she says. “In animal husbandry, the trend is to send male calves to slaughter; only milch cattle are taken care of. The people who breed bulls for jallikattu need to be given incentives.”
In Ayyampatti, perhaps the best-known jallikattu venue in Theni district, bright box-like houses painted blue and green surround the vaadi vaasal. About 40 bulls, including the Aandichami temple bull, that is allowed the rare privilege of grazing freely anywhere, are the pride of the village. Amidst a storm of mounting anxiety, the people here are prepared to cast off the trammels of authority if a review petition isn’t taken up. “If jallikattu is banned, there will be other versions of it. We will continue to release our bulls in mock-jallikattu events within the village,” says A Palanichami. “We believe that if we don’t conduct jallikattu, it won’t rain.” At this year’s event, the village, with about 1,000 houses, hosted over a lakh visitors. “We cooked 400 kg of rice every day for a week. We fed the animals, their handlers and the tamers,” says Dhanalakshmi, wife of the village panchayat head Annadurai. Organising a jallikattu involves 60 days of work and a Rs 1,000 contribution from each family, Annadurai says. The wells are fenced off, barricades erected, and all meat renounced a week before the event in honour of the village deity. “We had a Hero Honda bike, several cycles, almirahs and fridges as prizes this year,” he says. “But the biggest prize of all was that 500 of the 600 bulls that participated remained unbeaten.”