Looking like the Grinch out to steal the joy of Christmas, Sub-inspector of Police P Shanmugam marches, at first light, towards an open stretch of land adjoining the Muthumariamman temple in Thirunallur. He is angry. Flouting a Supreme Court order, two dozen bulls have just been disembarked from trucks filing into the temple grounds. Crowned with horns smeared with turmeric and vermilion, they are menacing beasts, scuffing the ground and jerking at the ropes as if unwilling to be led by humans weighing a fifth of their bulk. Thirunallur—or Thennalur as the village is commonly known— is one of about a hundred traditional jallikattu venues in Pudukkottai district, and an unusual one at that: here, there are seven gates (called vadi- vasal) instead of one whence the bulls charge towards an arena where limber men wait to latch on to their humps and hold on for dear life. The district administration, following a 2009 directive, has disallowed jallikattu in the village for the past four years, but now, for four consecutive Sundays ahead of Pongal, Tamil Nadu’s annual harvest festival where cattle are worshipped as gods, men have gathered here from near and far to ‘let their bulls loose’ for impromptu bull-baiting sessions. Presently, a jaunty bull breaks loose on its own and gallops away, sending grown men sprinting for safety. Shanmugam waves a stick at this raucous gathering, barking orders to load the cattle back into the trucks. “Will you dare let them loose? Ponga da! (be gone!)” he bellows at the men in folded-up lungis, who grudgingly disperse, like the fog on this wintry morning. But he knows, by the look of gritty stubbornness in their eyes, that they will be back. He too will return—in uniform.
Minutes ago, the men with the bulls had been flush with the pride and excitement preceding a jallikattu. A primitive spirit of daredevilry had filled the air. But before the show could begin, they were slapped in the face with a reality check. In May 2014, the Supreme Court, citing animal rights violations, banned all forms of bull taming, baiting and racing, including jallikattu, a sport said to have been conducted in the state in honour of stud bulls and valorous men since 4,000 years ago. For a generation of bull owners and baiters who risk their lives for the glory and tradition of this sport, the judgment was a bigger blow than any they had suffered at the horns of a bull. “You can stop a big jallikattu from taking place, but these small gatherings are a pressure release valve, they cannot be shut off,” says V Muthu, a bull-baiter from the neighbouring village of Narthamalai. In 2007, 23 men were arrested at the Narthamalai temple grounds for damaging police jeeps and attacking officers following a ban on jallikattu in the village. This time around, the Supreme Court’s blanket ban has all but dashed hopes of a jallikattu anywhere in the district.
K Kamaraj, a farmer from Kallakudi or Dalmiapuram in Tiruchirapalli district, has been coming to Thirunallur for 27 years to offer worship at the temple and enter his bulls in the village jallikattu. Along with his brother Sekar and their three bulls, he had embarked on the 75 km journey aboard a hired truck last night. “Knowing the event may not happen this year, I came today hoping to let them loose at the very least,” he says with a look of resigned disappointment. Even after most bulls have left the scene, a small crowd lingers and casts about for a window of opportunity. Desperation will drive these men to the village of Thodaiyur in Annavasal taluk, where police will halt a jallikattu in progress later in the day and confiscate over a dozen motorbikes. “Forget jallikattu, we will not allow a single bull to be let loose even on the day of maattu pongal (a festival celebrated in villages the day after Pongal to honour cattle). We have informers who alert us every time there is an attempt at a jallikattu,” says Deputy Superintendent of Police P Arumugam, of Keeranur sub-division, Pudukottai district, after an emergency meeting with senior officers under him, who he says are working overtime to visit potential trouble-makers and disperse suspicious gatherings.
Sentiments run high this year ahead of Pongal, across districts in southern Tamil Nadu that had expected the ban to be lifted well in time for jallikattu season between mid-January and May. “Already, people are blaming this break from religious tradition for the scant rain in these parts,” says R Senthil, the Thirunallur temple administrator who is also the local jallikattu organiser. “We cannot sideline the cultural and religious legacy of seven crore Tamil people. Not everything can be brought under the law,” says Tamilisai Soundararajan, the state BJP president, who finds “a complete ban distressing”. “People are aware and they are asking questions. The legislation was implemented during Congress rule but it is being twisted against our government. It is an unfortunate problem,” she says.
With politicians across party lines expressing support for the ‘heroic’ Tamil tradition and demanding emergency action that could allow events to be conducted in time for Pongal, the AIADMK government is in damage control mode— it sent a team of senior state government officials on 12 January to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and urged it to remove bulls from the list of performing animals. The Ministry had issued a notification in July 2011 banning the exhibition and training of bulls as performing animals under Section 22 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. At the time of going to press—on 13 January—there was a glimmer of hope among jallikattu organisers, triggered by reports from Delhi that the Ministry would exempt jallikattu bulls from the legislation, possibly clearing the path for passing an ordinance allowing jallikattu.
A couple of weeks ago, when members of the Jallikattu Peravai, an organisers’ body, met at Teppakulam in Madurai to express umbrage at the ban, someone in the milling crowd of supporters and activists stood up to ask a question: In a state ruled by several dynasties, invaded by the Delhi Sultans and controlled by imperialists, no one issued a complete ban on jallikattu, so why now, especially after regulations have been brought into effect to safeguard bulls against cruelty? A part of annual temple festivals, the practice of jallikattu had already been flailing against a headwind of opposition by activists and regulatory legislation. The number of events in the state had dropped from over a thousand before 2006 to just 25 in 2014. In a reaction to an earlier court order to ban the sport, the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act (TNRJA) 2009—a legislation that was later found incompatible with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act by the Supreme Court—was passed to permit jallikattu to be conducted under the strict watch of the district administration, subject to a number of rules. The law made it impossible for small villages to conduct a jallikattu and turned a local festival into a spectator sport involving hundreds of bulls and lakhs of people cheering from galleries built for the occasion. Cases of alleged injuries sustained by bulls at these high-profile events, conflated with the aspect of danger to the bull-baiters, were then taken up by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), India, which went to court with the charge that jallikattu was a gruesome sport where bulls were routinely harmed. Months after the Supreme Court delivered a verdict in PETA’s favour, bull owners and baiters continue to deny these allegations and claim animal rights activists are disconnected from the ground realities of jallikattu.
Sitting on a cot in the shrinking shade of a neem tree in Keeranur, Pudukkottai district, P Manikandan, a dairy farmer and cattle trader who has three bulls and over a dozen cows, says owning a bull is now considered akin to a crime. “I cannot walk my bull on the street without a policeman treating me like a terrorist,” he says. An acre of land in his village, located off the NH210 from Trichy to Ramanathapuram, fetches Rs 2-3 crore, and he has set aside two acres for grazing his cattle. “These bulls have won me TVs, fridges, bicycles. Now they languish and they are restless without enough exercise,” he says, walking gingerly up to his most capricious bull. The animal grunts and rears up when he picks up its aluminium basin battered by repeated mauling. It is time for the bull’s next meal of rice and cottonseed along with home-grown brinjal. Manikandan is also rearing a male calf that he says is the joy of his life. The scrawny animal that lazes in a shelter next to its mother, he claims, will one day become a prize bull. “I believe that the ban will be revoked and I will wait for it,” he says.
It is thanks to practices like jallikattu, which incentivise owning a bull, that four out of Tamil Nadu’s five native cattle breeds live on, argues Karthikeya Sivasenapathy of the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, which is concerned with conserving the Kangayam bull. “Since the Supreme Court order was passed, 60,000- 80,000 bulls of native breeds have been sent to slaughterhouses in Kerala. If not for jallikattu, there is no use for them anymore, especially with foreign breeds of milch cattle gaining prominence in the state over native draught cattle,” he says. Jallikattu was a way of assessing stud bulls, the best of which could then be mated with cows to produce strong offspring, he says. Even today, discerning cattle traders carefully pick out calves with long legs, an elegant gait and other features considered desirable in a jallikattu bull. “They buy them for Rs 2,000 and groom them like they would groom a son, with the best fodder and exercise. In a few years, after the bull has won a few prizes at jallikattu, it can fetch a price of over Rs 1.5 lakh,” says P Rajasekhar, president of the Jallikattu Peravai and a granite businessman from Madurai, who has repeatedly appealed to the Tamil Nadu Government for an emergency ordinance allowing jallikattu to be conducted this year.
Avaniyapuram, a municipality in Madurai district that traditionally hosts the first jallikattu event of the year on the day of Pongal, is among the venues caught in the eddies of hope and despair. Jallikattu organising committee member AK Kannan is weary and prefers to stay home these days. “If I step out, people mob me and ask if we are going to conduct the event this year. Bull owners from far-flung villages continue to approach me for tokens to participate,” he says. “I don’t have the heart to tell them that despite the Chief Minister’s assurances, this Pongal could be a black day. There is little hope of an ordinance being passed in time. We will consider ourselves lucky if we get a chance to conduct the event sometime later in the year.”
In Alanganallur, a sleepy village near Madurai that finds itself immersed in a pullulating swarm of tourists for one day in a year, there is an aura of incredulity among locals. Black flags have been hoisted in protest against banning an event that is seen as the village’s sole claim to fame. “People won’t marry into the village if there was no jallikattu,” worries G Sathya, 45, who cooks a hearty meal of kari kuzhambu (chicken or fish in a tamarind gravy) and lemon rice for 40-50 guests on the day of the event. The income from tourism, in the form of snacks, liquor and other goods sold to visitors, is sizeable. “It is not just a game,” insists V Balaji, the chief organiser. “It is a Hindu festival for the Kaliamman temple and the Muniandiswamy temple,” he says. His office is deserted but for two concerned friends. They say they are ready with the funds, upwards of Rs 15 lakh, and the manpower—a thousand men, to build long double- barricades and set up gallery seating, to send out invites and enlist bulls—needed to hurriedly put together an event. “If the court gives us the go-ahead even a day before the date of our event, which should fall on 17 January this year, we can still make it happen,” Balaji says. In the village, women waiting in a snaking queue at the fair price shop talk of a year in the distant past when Alanganallur failed to host a jallikattu. “We have heard from our mothers and grandmothers that there was a deadly bout of cholera that killed more people than the graveyards could take,” says R Gandhimathi, 52. “Some fear there will be another epidemic. It is just a belief, not something you city people would take seriously.”
Trainers in the district are yet optimistic. In Rangarajapuram, a small, garbage- strewn hamlet on the road from Madurai to Alanganallur, K Suresh, a 29-year-old who works as an accountant at a private firm in Madurai and bears scars from tackling bulls over the years, trains his bull every day. “I take it out for a swim in the morning, besides doing practice sessions with the village lads,” he says. There is a small army of them, aged eight to 18, and they flock around him as he leads his bull to the vadi vasal where a poster implores the state government to pass an emergency ordinance. Ramu is in a fierce mood today, kicking up dirt and digging his horns into the ground, but 15-year- old R Gokul is unfazed. He is sure-footed, tackling the bull as it bucks wildly under his slight frame. T Kaushik, a 17-year-old from Alanganallur in a Messi T-shirt, is up next. “I lied to my parents. I told them I was going to play cricket, because they disapprove of playing with bulls,” he says. “These boys are the future,” says Suresh, whose love affair with bull- baiting began 15 years ago. If there is a future. “There is a good chance jallikattu will resume soon, but it can never go back to its glory days. Where is 2,000 events and where is 25?” asks S Manoj, a seasoned bull-baiter from Trichy.
Back on the main road to Alanganallur, trucks loaded with sugarcane and cows— customary gifts from a new bride’s parents for her first Pongal away from home—make way for an auto-rickshaw blaring news of a DMK meeting in support of jallikattu. I drive to Palamedu, the third big venue in Madurai district, where the mood is one of listlessness. Elders sit around a tree, playing a game of aadu-puli-aattam, a strategic board game involving coins classified into leopards and goats. What about the 250 bulls in the village? What fate awaits them? “The way it is going, some of us are resigned to the fact that the next generation will not witness jallikattu or understand its significance,” says M Alagarsami, who runs a sari shop in the village. The imposing vadi vasal, which is receiving a fresh coat of paint, tells another story. “The whole issue is like a board game and we are not the ones playing it,” Alagarsami says. “Let’s wait and watch.”