IS IT A 2,500-year-old Tamil tradition canonised in classical literature or an obsolete spectator sport? A show of valour or of cruelty? A game or a cultural artefact? The debate on Jallikattu, the practice of bull taming, continues to rage as thousands of Tamil youth occupy Chennai’s Marina Beach in solidarity against the ban on the sport following a 2014 Supreme Court verdict. Whatsapp forwards have kept them abreast of the state of Pulikulam, Kangeyam and Umblachery cattle, native breeds that have arguably survived the Jersey-fication of Indian dairy thanks to their value in Jallikattu. They may not read Sangam poetry but they have heard stories of how participation in the sport served as the measure of a Tamil man’s strength and a symbol of his machismo, making him desirable to the women of his village. They have watched superstars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth bait bulls onscreen and have dreamt of doing it themselves.
The past two Pongals have seen subdued celebrations in Madurai, Sivaganga, Pudukkottai and Dindigul districts, the Jallikattu heartland where people are yet hopeful that an emergency ordinance may be passed to circumvent the Supreme Court bench ruling that the sport constitutes an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act. Organisers and bull owners have always denied allegations of cruelty against the bulls. The humped bull, Bos indicus, has traditionally been held holy and there is evidence of it being an object of affection even in Indus Valley times. And while it is reared for Jallikattu, which is not exactly a display of affection, the bond between owners, trainers and their bulls is often a close one. Maintaining a bull on a diet of cottonseed, brinjal and hay can set a family back by Rs 10,000 a month, but owners contend that the pride of rearing a prize bull—prizes range from bicycles and refrigerators to medals—that will shake off the strongest of men is well worth it. A winning bull can cost up to Rs 1.5 lakh, but owners rarely ever sell a prize bull—although this is changing after the ban—or allow it to be mated outside their own village.
Clearly, Jallikattu has nothing in common with any rational, modern sport played for money. Efforts to regulate it have had mixed results. Over 600 Jallikattu events were conducted every year across Tamil Nadu until the turn of the century. The number dropped to just 25 in 2014 as strict regulations were put in place to minimise risk to human lives. The Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act,2009, was passed to keep it under the district administration’s watch. In the modern version of the sport, each participating bull is inspected for abuse and performance-boosting drugs by state-appointed doctors before it enters the vaadi vaasal, the gate to the arena, and after the game. Double barricades are erected to cordon off the animal’s path, where tamers in colourful jerseys wait to tackle it by its hump—not by the tail, neck or horns, which will lead to disqualification—and try to hang on for about 50 ft, until the bull crosses the finish line. Few bulls remain in the arena for more than half a minute, bucking wildly as crowds watch from the streets and rooftops. Only a few venues met the new standards, turning what was a local festival into a spectator sport attracting hundreds of bulls and lakhs of people cheering from galleries built for the occasion.
Ironically, the controversies and efforts to ban it have elevated a rural sport to a matter of Tamil identity. It has made young Tamils confront aspects of ethnography like no other issue in recent times. Part of the reason is that this time, the enemy is PETA, a ‘foreign’ agency that seems not to care for the emotions attached it. More than anything else, however, the mass protest is a manifestation of a culture’s need to assert itself, fierce as a raging bull fending off its challengers.