The most famous sport this season, in Madurai, involves bulls. But there are others, involving rams and cocks. And a lot of gambling.

Madurai, often seen as the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, is home to a great many sports that are considered markers of masculinity. There is, for instance, Ilavatta Kal Thookuthal, the lifting of the huge spherical stone found lying on village squares. This sport has been imprinted in our imagination through the 1986 Sivaji Ganesan starrer Mudhal Mariyadhai, where the actor tries to impress the heroine by lifting one such stone. In olden days, among certain martial castes, this sport is believed to have been one among many used to test the valour and strength of a youth before marriage. In another sport, the youth would be given an axe to split the wood of mosana maram.

The most famous of these “masculine rituals” is jallikattu, the traditional sporting event with bulls. Historical references show that jallikattu, known in ancient times as “yeru thazhuvuthal,” was popular among warriors during the Tamil classical period. The term “jallikattu” comes from the Tamil terms “salli kaasu” (coins) and “kattu” (a package tied to the horns of bulls as prize money). During Pongal, the harvest festival held during the second week of January, thousands of people pour into the villages of Alanganallur and Palamedu to watch the jallikattu.

Jallikattu is seen as the cultural marker of this region but Madurai’s hinterlands and even the urban spaces are home also to cockfights and ram fights. Conducted in discreet places, these fights liven up the quotidian lives of many youths who can be found carrying their roosters and walking their rams with great pride.

In an early-morning scene at Koilpappakudi village, on the outskirts of Madurai, local youth Sasi Kumar’s muscular black ram Karuppu wheels back and charges, leaping into his opponent and hitting him with a crashing thud. One more high-speed collision and his intimidated opponent runs for cover from the yard, amid much amusement, whistles and claps from onlookers.

These ram fights are held at dusty fields and the barren pits on empty ponds in villages like Koilpappakudi, Anaiyur, Vellaimedu, Batlagundu, Podhumbu, Thuvariman, Vilangudi and Usilampatti, and even in city spaces like Keerathurai. The youth are very careful in choosing these places, where they can escape the eyes of the policemen; through word of mouth they pass the news of having a ram fight.

Two-year-old Karuppu, with his noticeable stature, muscular hind legs and glistening horns polished with neem oil, is quite famous in his village as he has won many such competitions. Twenty-five-year-old Sasi Kumar says that it is for pride that he rears Karuppu. He gets very upset when his ram loses. His masculinity is at stake. Like the jallikattu bulls, these rams function as metaphors of masculinity. Members of the intermediate castes of Mukkulathors are the ones who mostly own these fighting rams and jallikattu bulls. Only recently have members of other castes been found rearing them.

There is another Karuppu in the same village; a sturdier ram than Sasi Kumar’s animal. His owner M. Arunagiri, a real estate broker, says that he found he had something special when Karuppu was young. He bought him and since then has been feeding him a special diet of greens, grass and the residue from boiling soya beans, maize, lentil waste and tuvar dal waste. His exercise includes a walk for a mile every day, and on Sunday, two hours of swimming practice. A ram owner at Karuppayoorani trains this ram to fight by rolling a tractor tyre and making it hit the tyre head on.

Arunagiri says that a single bout consists of 75 beats/hits where the rams butt into each other head-first. The fights mostly happen on Sundays. They are very careful in choosing the right opponent to fight; they go by age (with the count of its teeth) and weight, and then make the rams fight. The respective owners of the two rams visit their opponent’s place and check the ram before agreeing for a fight.

The rams run at a great speed and there are instances where they get severe head injuries, with horns getting broken, and there are instances where the weaker one has died after getting hit a few times. The referee and handlers pull the rams apart if they start goring each other from the side, rather than charging head-on.

The price of the ram depends on its fighting abilities. A ram costs between Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 45,000. Its value increases manifold with its victory. The local breed weighs 25 to 30 kilos while the Pakistani breed weighs 60 to 70 kilos. The shandies where they sell rams are at Tirumangalam, Vadipatti, Nelpettai and Palamedu.

Along with jallikattu, Alanganallur is known for cockfighting. The village’s youth, apart from rearing those ferocious bulls, also rear roosters with beautiful plumage.

Vetri Pandi, a big name in the Alanganallur cockfight scene, is the proud owner of a raging bull and a few roosters. His house in the village and the empty land nearby have many poles where we find roosters tied up. These birds are specially bred and trained for fighting; they are well kept, well fed, pampered and carefully groomed by their owners who show them off with pride.

As these fights are banned, when we approached some youths with their roosters at a vacant space, they thought we were cops in plainclothes and were quick to respond that they had bought the birds for meat. But after some cajoling, they agreed to organise mock fights.

It is a common sight in the village to see young men carrying their rooster in hand, gently caressing the bird and bouncing it up and down, patting it strongly on its back to provoke anger at its opponent. Besides colour, plumage, size and temperament of the rooster are taken into consideration for a fight. After the box-office success of the movie Aadukalam, where the protagonist is a Madurai-based youth who rears roosters and competes in fights, there is a craze among the youth to own such roosters and engage in fights.

The youth at Alanganallur picked two roosters, took sides, and fluffed, pulled, prodded and put the birds at the centre of the ring. The cocks flew almost immediately at each other, at great speed, in a wing-beating leg-kicking affair, trying to tear into the opponent with their beaks. The fights become bloody affairs when the shiny steel spurs on the legs of the birds tear apart a meek opponent. Naked heel fights are also organised, but with much less fanfare and response from the crowd.

Pandi has a small shed where he secretly makes the spurs; he showed us a handful of them. He says that the rules of the game are simple. The winner takes it all, including the losing rooster, which will be used for the feast.

The price of a rooster varies according to its fighting skills, and starts around Rs. 7, 000. A multi-coloured rooster of Pandi that has won many a battle was priced at a whopping Rs. 35,000; Pandi recently won Rs. 2 lakh in a tournament.

Most of the women in these villages are not part of these sports, but they support their men and take collective pride in the wins. Some of them prefer to stay in the background in other areas too. The panchayat president of Alanganallur is an educated woman named Geetha Balaji but she is hardly at the helm of affairs as her husband has become the de facto president, usurping her powers and participating in all the meetings and taking decisions on behalf of the president.

The villagers cite religious and other myths to defend these sports. The cockfight, to some, is an intense sport, a pastime while, to others, it remains an ancient religious ritual, marked by a sacred ceremony where the blood of the rooster is believed to ward off demons.

Prominent anthropologist Clifford Geertz, through his symbolic anthropological framework, talks about the role of symbols in constructing public meaning. He sees culture as a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms, and he sees cockfights as a metaphor for masculinity. T. Dharmarajan, Head, Department of Folklore, Madurai Kamaraj University, feels that events like jallikattu, ram fights and cockfights have more cultural significance than just being symbols of masculinity and martial sport.

The ownership, especially in the case of bulls, not only represents social status but also results in a conversion towards economic status coupled with caste dominance. The rustic space is a contested terrain where there is always protracted tension between an agrarian society and tribal society; the latter through historical experience of domesticating animals have a hold over the former. Thus, bulls remain a symbolic representation of an economic activity.

Because of the instances of gambling at such events and also concerned with animal-rights issues, the police prevent the holding of such contests. The Madurai Superintendent of Police, V. Balakrishnan said, “We do not allow such fights as 99 per cent of those fights involve gambling. There are arguments citing tradition etc., but we stick to the law and prevent such fights.”

Hence these fights have moved to extralegal spaces, and youths continue to organise them on a small scale. When asked about these fights, they simply say, “It’s entertainment.”

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