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Explained: As Jallikattu begins, recalling the cultural argument for an ancient tradition

Jallikattu is a bull-taming sport that has traditionally been part of the festival of Pongal. However, the practice has long been contested, with animal rights groups and the courts concerned over issues of cruelty to animals and the bloody and dangerous nature of the sport.

Written by Amrith Lal , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 16, 2021 7:06:52 am
Chennai: Participants try to tame a bull during Avaniyapuram Jallikattu as the part of Pongal festival celebration, in Chennai, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (PTI Photo)

As Pongal celebrations began in Tamil Nadu on Thursday (January 14), Congress leader Rahul Gandhi witnessed a Jallikattu event near Madurai and spoke of the “Tamil spirit” and “emotions of the Tamil people”.

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Jallikattu is a bull-taming sport that has traditionally been part of the festival of Pongal. The festival is a celebration of nature, and thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, of which cattle-worship is part.

The elite Jallikattu breeds test the strength and guile of farm hands in especially-constructed arenas. It is a violent sport, and there is only one winner, man or bull. Contests in Avaniapuram, Peelamedu and Alanganallur, villages neighbouring Madurai, set the tone for the season, which continues until April.

The argument against cruelty

The practice of Jallikattu has long been contested, with animal rights groups and the courts concerned over issues of cruelty to animals and the bloody and dangerous nature of the sport that causes death and injuries to both the bulls and human participants.

Governments at the state and Centre have wrestled with formulating a regulatory mechanism for Jallikattu, and a matter relating to whether Tamil Nadu can conserve it as a cultural right under Article 29(1) of the Constitution — “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same” — is before the Supreme Court.

In 2014, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, “over-shadows or overrides the so-called tradition and culture”. The court drew upon Upanishadic wisdom and advised Parliament to “elevate rights of animals to that of constitutional rights… so as to protect their dignity and honour”.

The court was probably also influenced by documentation done by the Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body under the Centre, and animal rights groups like PETA, that served as evidence that the Jallikattu animals were physically and mentally tortured. “Bulls are beaten, poked, prodded, harassed and jumped on by numerous people. They have their tails bitten and twisted and their eyes and noses filled with irritating chemicals,” the judgment said.

The case for culture and tradition

Why did the case for Jallikattu as culture and tradition fail to impress the court?

It isn’t that there exists no tangible evidence to show that this battle between man and beast is indeed a cultural representation. Jallikattu has been celebrated in Tamil cinema as an integral part of agrarian life. Novelists, among them the late DMK leader M Karunanidhi, have woven plots around them.

The political economy of Jallikattu is easier to explain: it is about showcasing the quality of cattle, the breeding skills of cattle rearers, the centrality of cattle in an agrarian economy, and the power and pride they bring to farmers and land-owning castes in rural Tamil Nadu.

Jallikattu is a cultural manifestation of this political economy. As a tradition, it links an agrarian people to the elemental aspect of their vocation; where a man risks his life to tame unpredictable nature. The bull, like land, is both his friend and foe. When the beast is bested, it brings bounty; defeat most likely means death.

In the Jallikattu heartland of Madurai and its neighbourhood, life is hard. Agriculture is a way of life, but the land is perennially short of water. Heat and thirst are debilitating in the flatlands that spread from the foothills of the Western Ghats across the Vaigai basin to the lands bordering the fertile plains of the Cauvery in the east.

It is the landscape that in the ancient past hosted the Tamil Sangams, but in recent times agriculture has become a difficult occupation. Jallikattu is almost a cathartic experience — overcoming the violence of a harsh land where resources are scarce and life needs to be tackled with skill and cunning.

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The cultural universe of Jallikattu

Perhaps the best guide to the cultural universe of Jallikattu is C S Chellappa’s brilliant novella, ‘Vaadivaasal’ (Arena), a slim volume written in the 1940s, with a handful of male characters and bulls. Picchi, a young man from Usilanoor village, comes to the Periyapetti arena to tame the Vaadipuram bull, Kari, that had taken his father’s life in a previous Jallikattu. Picchi is not after winning pride and prize; he is at the arena to settle what resembles a blood feud.

An old man tells Picchi: “For warrior castes like ours, staying alive is never the primary goal. For us shedding blood is just like spilling water… Pounce on the bull after thinking it through. If your first hold falters and slips, all will be lost.”

The pride of the bull-tamer is the primordial character of the warrior, willing to die but unwilling to accept defeat. Picchi tames the bull and avenges his father. He tells the zamindar whose prized bull he defeated that he did not mean to disrespect him; he was doing only what a son ought to do. The zamindar admires the bull-tamer’s skills and courage, but shoots the bull that had let him down.

In his introduction to N Kalyan Raman’s beautiful English translation of ‘Vaadivaasal’, P A Krishnan says, “In deft sentences full of rural idioms and in a dialect that is special to Madurai and Ramanathapuram of the Tamil country, he (Chellappa) tells us all about heirarchy, love, intimacy, pride, friendship, revenge and, above all, the man-beast duel.”

Complex struggle of past, present

‘Vaadivaasal’ is in a social space where pride is a culture and tradition in itself. It gives clues to why the ban on Jallikattu is so fiercely contested. For agrarian communities like Thevars and Maravars, Jallikattu is one of the few markers of their social standing and identity in a fast-changing world. The contest, which evidently celebrates masculinity, is almost an act of cultural resistance to an urban modernity that tends to marginalise rural and agrarian values.

Jallikattu’s linkages with Pongal has lifted it above its regional and community origins and transformed it into a symbol of Tamil culture and pride. Pride in Tamil culture is central to Dravidian nationalism, which continues to shape the political discourse in Tamil Nadu. The political consensus in favour of Jallikattu is inescapable.

Tradition and culture are not immune to change. But it is facile to argue that the rights discourse can be conducted ignoring the cultural context. The argument to move from an anthropocentric vision and adopt a biocentric ethics will have to be discussed and negotiated in cultural terms as well. In the absence of such engagement, the supporters of animal rights are likely to be seen as a deracinated group that is insensitive to local culture and tradition.

This is an updated version of the author’s article ‘Why the cultural argument for Jallikattu needs a hearing’, which was first published in January 2016.

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