Rekla race: S.S.Kavitha meets Panju Aasari, who claims to be the only surviving rekla cart maker in Madurai district
In the age of BMWs, bullock carts too vie for space not just on city roads but occupy peoples’ minds too. Just off the National Highway to Alagarkoil Road the city vignettes disappear and the rustic fervour takes over with élan.
Once you reach Appan Tirupathi, it is very easy to find Panju Aasari’s pattarai. With pride and enthusiasm, villagers guide you to the wood workshop.
Inside a dilapidated building, 70-year-old Aasari keeps a tradition alive. Strenuously hitting and bending an iron rod he makes a perfect circle that can be fitted to the wheel of a race cart. The meticulous mechanism of his work is comparable to any Formula 1 race car.
Panju Aasari holds a craft aloft which in turn turns the wheel of fortune for bullock and cart owners participating in rekla races.
Defying his age, Panju Aasari lifts the logs strewn around and damaged parts of race cart that come to him for repair. He has been doing this work for 40 years now ever since he started selling carts for Rs.2,000 and Rs.3,000. Now, the same carts go for Rs.18, 000 and more.
Six types of wood -- puvarasu, vagai, karuvelam, kongu, teak and bamboo – go into the making of these sturdy carts, that weigh around 75 to 80 kg.
“The light weight,” says Aasari, “helps the ottali (one who runs behind the cart) to lift it and keep it back on track if it slips off the road when the bullocks move run at a speed of 70 to 80 km.”
It takes about three months to make a cart. On an average, he sells about a dozen carts every year to people from Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Ettaiayapuram, Melur, Karaikudi, Iyyampalayam etc.
There is no profit, however, in his business given the rising cost of raw materials and labour, he says. But Aasari pursues it as a passion. He can earn a marginal profit only when the rekla carts come for repair. “Wheels usually are the first. Sometime, the carts come a fresh coat of paint ,” he says.
He learnt the craft from his father Rasu Aasari who made all kinds of carts of that period. Now Aasari has passed on the knowledge and legacy to his 45 years old son, Kannan.
Panju Aasari’s love for race cart making propels him to look for new designs for the cart arches. “I love introducing some unique and attractive designs in the cart so that it stands out,” he smiles.
Unlike Jallikattu, rekla race is conducted through the year. Sometimes, political parties organise the entertainment sport where young and old participate with equal enthusiasm.
“Tamil Nadu is never complete without a mention of jallikattu, manjuvirattu and rekla race. Rekla race is a tradition, a sport and entertainment for farmers,” says Sekar Ambalakkarar of Poondi. “The bullocks have to be taken care like newborn babies.”
“Rich people pursue it as a passion and pride. The bullocks that win the race are sold up to Rs.13 lakh,” says Panju Aasari.
“It is believed that rekla race has its origin in Karaikudi where people of a particular community commonly known as nattars were involved in the race,” he says.
Rekla race is divided into three categories based on the height, capacity and strength of the bulls. They are referred to as the big or medium-sized bulls or the Karichan and Poonchittu bull. Similarly, the racing track is also proportionally increased or decreased based on the type of bull participating. Most popular rekla race venues are Kalanivasal in Karaikudi, Iyyampalayam near Dindigul, Appan Tirupathi in Madurai etc. Where ever races are conducted Panju Aasari is there to witness and enjoy.
If a cart (made by him) wins the race, he feels elated especially when the winner introduces him to others. “I am leaving for Kalanivasal now to watch a rekla race,” he smiles.