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