Jallikattu: A Red Rag to a Bull

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A year after unprecedented protests over banning jallikattu that pitted cultural traditionalists against animal rights activists, the rural sport has become a youthful rebellion

NOTHING CAN CONVINCE the boys to stay home today. Not their mothers’ treats and entreaties, the smell of starch from a new veshti, juicy sugarcane and streets brightened with kolams, bouquets of flowers— avarampoo (Cassia auriculata) and koorai poo (Aerva lanata)—and mango leaves decorating courtyards and doorways. Pongal. To them, it means one thing. The start of jallikattu season. The brat pack from a village near Dindigul left for Avaniapuram in Madurai late night on January 13th, disembarking from two trucks at 1 am with two very angry bulls. Avaniapuram was all set for the big day. A pile of coconut coir covered the street arena where man and animal would clash as cheering crowds watched from rooftops and galleries on either side. Bull owners nodded off to Hiphop Tamizha in the common pasture land. Grunts and the smell of dung filled the air. In a few hours, it would be time to line up for tokens to enter the bulls in the competition—if one can call it that. “It is a year after the Thai protests against the ban on jallikattu and we are more excited than ever,” says K Naina Mohamad Ibrahim, 24, part of a team of a dozen men from the village of Sanarpatti in Dindigul district escorting two of their bulls. “It was a big victory, forcing the government to come to its knees,” Ibrahim says. “Who are they to tell us we can’t play with our bulls?”

A generation of rurban Tamil youth has found a counterculture peg in the martial sport that was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014 and allowed last year after protests broke out. A Constitutional Bench is set to decide if the sport forms a part of a people’s cultural right, protected under Article 29 (1) of the Constitution. Critics and activists may dismiss jallikattu as a vestigial relic or rage at the masculine power play over animals, but of late, the sport has undeniably become a means of collective rebellious self-expression against the government. Pride in owning a jallikattu bull today comes with a vague rush of anarchy at having defied civilisational palisades put up by agencies unmindful of tradition.

We are at the first big jallikattu of the year, in Avaniapuram, where posters from last year’s Thai Puratchi (revolution in the Tamil month of Thai that begins with Pongal) still coat the walls. The two commentators onstage near the vadi vaasal— the narrow aperture through which the bulls are released, one by one—pay lip service to district officials and Animal Welfare Board of India representatives and issue well-meaning directives to the medical team that is always on standby. The rules are repeated over and over: do not grab a bull by its horns or tail, or you risk disqualification. To fans, these are but minutiae, devised to appease the self- righteous grumps who now dictate the terms in what should just be a village fair. Danger is the order of reality here, and confrontation with it the mark of a real man. Weltering in the coir up close with a bull even as another gets ready to rage into the arena, skylarking boys in their teens and twenties morph into valorous heroes of yore, puffed up with fear and beautiful conceit. The mesh cage separating spectator and spectacle seems to dissolve in the overlit mood. Cameras capture every grisly detail. The prizes—bicycles, silver coins, induction stoves, flimsy folding cots and cabinets with the names of the donor painted on them—seem pointless in a sport where the real prize is returning home with your life and your pride intact.

Backstage, the mood is tense. Over 900 bulls wait in line, but many will not get their moment in the sun. Ibrahim and team have been up since 4 am, minding Sandiyar, a notorious runner that doesn’t seem to get when the game is over, and a temple bull they acquired only last year. “Sandiyar has given us a 27-km chase through the woods once, but today, we are more worried about whether it will be let loose at all,” says D Nirmal Raj, 27, the de facto leader of the boys from Dindigul. Raj, Ibrahim and a couple of younger boys pace restlessly at a junction with a Ganesha temple and a small provisions store. A lane branching off into a residential settlement is lined with large pots and cauldrons, washed and drying in the sun after the morning meal. Every year, on the day of the event, locals welcome and cook for the men and their bulls, citing beliefs that jallikattu pleases the gods of rain. “Last year, when the first big event since 2014 was conducted here, it was a happy occasion. Pongal felt like Pongal again. And the rains came later last year,” says R Selvarathi, the owner of the provisions store who forces a packet of water and a bottle of Bovonto, a homegrown grape soda, on us. Raj is busy fielding calls from people who want to know when their bull would enter the arena. The whereabouts of prize bulls are secrets never to be revealed to star tamers and supercilious owners who may be in the race to buy them for lakhs of rupees. “We were hundred-something in line, but there is no order here. Politicians’ and local bulls have taken up the first few hundred spots. We are distraught,” Raj tells them. Neither the bulls, nor their minders, have eaten since last night. Raj says they spent Rs 5,000 to hire a car and mini-trucks to come to the event, and it could all be in vain.

Critics and activists may dismiss jallikattu as a vestigial relic or rage at the masculine power play over animals, but of late, the sport has undeniably become a means of collective defiance against the government

The length of Eeswaran Koil Street has turned into a crammed barn today, with hundreds of indigenous bulls—Puliakulam, Poorani, Sevalai, Malai Madu— standing flank-to-flank, jostling one another when given rope. The tails face a wall lined with shuttered shops, with barely a foot of space at the end to pass through. We walk down this treacherous path, fear lurching up my throat each time a bull groans, kicks, tries to wrest free. I look at the minders holding the nose rope on the other side for reassurance. When a group of locals with a bull tries to jump the queue, tensions quickly ratchet up. The men, some in t-shirts that spell ‘Thamizhanda’ (I am Tamil) and ‘Acham thavir’ (banish fear), are as truculent as the animals, and when they meet a bull on the pitiless arena, it is like lightning striking itself. A bull owner, V Velusamy from Madurai, is concerned we may be activists from PETA—the NGO at the forefront of the agitation against jallikattu— here to put a stop to the event. “If you find one instance of a man mistreating his bull, go stop it by all means,” he dares us. Instead, we find holy lemons and pretty tiaras on the animals’ foreheads, and Ponds’ talc sprinkled on the humps, perhaps to help shake off tamers.

S Suresh, in a t-shirt and shorts with weed motifs all over, holds Sandiyar’s nose rope. A diminutive boy of 16, he is quiet and confident, splashing the bull with water to keep it cool and feeding it some lemon juice with glucose. Sheikh Abdullah, 19, in a yellow jersey from a jallikattu last year, says they started getting interested in the sport in their early teens. “The way we see it, it is not just a sport. We have been attached to these bulls for years. Jallikattu no doubt gives us an unmatched high—that feeling of watching your village bull shake off the bravest man out there—but love for the bulls keeps us going even when there are no events,” says Sheikh. The Dindigul boys, like at least 500 other bull owners, went home without participating in the Avaniapuram jallikattu due to a lack of time. “We should not have come at all. But it’s the first event and we were hopeful,” says a pensive Ibrahim, en route to a pasture outside town where the bulls enjoy a drink of water while the men chew on sugarcane. It is dusk when they bid goodbye to their difficult optimism and to Avaniapuram. The overlong, mismanaged event, in their eyes, is yet another failure brought on by governmental interference.

TO SAY JALLIKATTU is a futile effort to perpetuate the pomp of ancient Tamil Nadu is disingenuous. For the most part, the men who own bulls are in it for the joy of raising an animal into a formidable beast. Raj, Ibrahim and a clutch of boys from Sanarpatti have been raising bulls since 2013, right through the ban. “Our parents did not want us buying bulls. The whole village was against it,” says Raj, who is in his last year of Bachelor of Dental Surgery. “We bought our first, a temple bull named Marudhu, in memory of our friend Karthikeyan who died in a road accident. He had always dreamed of owning a bull.” Pooling in a few thousand rupees each, the friends decided to buy another the next year. “When we bought Vellai for Rs 36,000, people warned us that he would be a total failure. He had changed hands eight times,” Raj says. It took some convincing by Joseph Dinesh, 27, a perceptive bull tamer and handler, before Raj said okay. Last year, to everyone’s surprise, Vellai was among the stars of the season—his first since the ban—winning hearts with his agility and “playfulness”. At the jallikattu in the neighbouring village of Kosavapatti last year, the six-year-old bull was indomitable, wounding seven and winning a dozen prizes. It put Sanarpatti on the map and stoked interest in bidders who have since offered to buy the bull for Rs 11 lakh. “It’s not for sale,” says Dinesh, stroking its ears when it lets out a grunt—a signal that the bull may be feeling scratchy. “It is our good luck charm. We don’t sharpen its horns, else it will surely gore a few men to death this season.”

“There was an economy built around jallikattu, with sellers of bamboo poles and locally brewed liquor setting up stalls. All of this has vanished” - K Naina Mohamad Ibrahim, jallikattu bull owner

For nearly six months in a year, dozens of young men in Sanarpatti spend their days lazing at a tamarind grove that is home to four bulls, a male calf that came as a prize, and a puppy named Style. Sitting on Pulsars and Hero Hondas parked in the dappled light, as though in a timeless moment of unworking from a Werner Herzog film, they exchange stories of jallikattu valour and polish their rough-edged fears. Daredevil bull fighter P Moorthy’s exploits feature prominently in their accounts. When he dies—perhaps an early and romantic death—they will erect a statue for him in his village, they tell me. They are not all rakes and scapegraces, but when they talk of the late Appu, a fearsome bull from the stables of P Rajasekhar, president of the Jallikattu Padhugappu Peravai (Jallikattu Protection Front), with something akin to devotion, I find myself doubting their engineering degrees. Ibrahim, a waif-thin mechanical engineer, gave up a private sector job to try his hand at government services. Saravanan Pandian, 26, will spend the second half of the year, after jallikattu season is over, laying floor tiles. V Sathish Kumar, 28, has just got a posting at the agriculture department at Dindigul, and is excited he can stay on in the village. Rajesh Prabhu, 23, who worked at a company in Palladam, is home thanks to a long-drawn- out strike. Anvar A Deen, 26, runs an electrical workshop. They all agree that they need the bulls, almost chemically, the way addicts need cocaine. “We may look lean now but come see us in a couple of months. The boys bulk up running after the bulls, taking them for walks and to swim,” Deen says. What were they doing now under the tamarind trees? Waiting for the water tanker to arrive so they could bathe the bulls for mattu pongal, and in the meantime, discussing the esoteric art of reading suzhis or the marks on a bull’s body to predict its future.

Jallikattu, their parents keep reminding them, is a ruinous whirlwind. We are at Nirmal Raj’s house for lunch when news pours in of a 19-year-old spectator gored to death on January 15th at the event at Palamedu, the second big jallikattu of the year. (The third event in the trilogy, held in Alanganallur the next day, claimed two more lives.) The victim, who hails from a village near Sanarpatti, had made the appalling mistake of getting into the arena along with participants in brightly coloured jerseys. Raj’s mother Vanaja, a primary school teacher, flinches when it occurs to her that he may even have been her student. “I have never seen a jallikattu. I haven’t found the courage,” she says. “Perhaps, if you came for the next event in Dindigul district, I could come along,” she suggests. Jallikattu is not just a male preserve, it is largely inaccessible to the middle-class and to urbanites except on TV. The widespread pro-jallikattu protests at Marina Beach last year were, therefore, read as desperate pleas for better governance. Raj’s father, Durai Pandian, runs a homoeopathic clinic in the village, and the family had not approved of their son’s involvement in a medieval blood sport. “But we saw the level of interest the boys had in their bulls, and we could not say no,” Vanaja says. “They are adults and they are in control of their lives. I think the authorities should understand that too.”

That a group of professionals from rural Dindigul would raise several bulls over the years, spending Rs 300-500 a day on each bull, all in the hope that the sport would be legalised again is as powerful a testament as any to the cause of reinstating jallikattu, says V Balakumar Somu, a jallikattu activist from Coimbatore. The cross-grained problem of animal rights and loss of human lives is a nettle worth grasping, he says, in the service of Tamil identity. The pursuit of jallikattu under constant supervision and strictures feels like a doomed love affair, says Ibrahim. We are in Nathamadipatti, a neighbouring village where jallikattu will resume tomorrow after years, largely out of interest in the bulls of Sanarpatti. Prizes ranging from a refrigerator to brass pots are piled in a hall. A villager brings a sack of rice as his contribution even as barricades and fences come up around the arena. “We usually cook meat, but tomorrow is Amavasya, so it is going to be tomato rice,” says A Karuppan, a local involved in organising the festival. “There was an economy built around jallikattu, with sellers of bamboo poles, locally brewed liquor and sundal setting up stalls. With state involvement, all of this has vanished,” says Ibrahim. Late that evening, after a visit to the Karuppu temple on the outskirts of Sanarpatti—a colourful shrine wrapped around a tree—the men assemble under the tamarind grove, a gentle breeze wafting from the Sirumalai forests, to cook pongal for the freshly-bathed bulls. They finally get it right after a few missteps. The next day, as expected, Vellai steals the show at Nathamadipatti, kicking off the season in style, and trumping all baiters and prancing, charging madly. Everything else—all the arguments for and against jallikattu—is pablum in comparison.