This Pongal, Akila Kannadasan rubs shoulders with bulls, bullfighters, farmers and spectators at Palamedu
Wiry and dusky, some of them with their moustache just sprouting, they walk about the village barefoot, hanging around street corners, horsing around. But when these young men stride into the jallikattu arena, they are no less than gladiators, wearing green shorts and t-shirts. They've waited for this moment all year; they've dreamed of taming the fiercest of bulls. They want to bring pride to their hometown. As they take their position in front of the vadi vasal (entry point) moments before the bull storms out, these 400-odd young men are charged as the bulls. The excitement is palpable as the jallikattu kick-starts in Palamedu. The sleepy village near Madurai is suddenly in the limelight. Spectators pour in from all over the world — they come in bikes, cars, trucks and buses. Journalists, policemen, tourists, tamers, bull owners and their families mill about its narrow streets. For Rs.20 a plate, there is meat sukka sold out of steel drums. Almost every thinai sells Palamedu's famous palkova. There is plenty to eat.
But the action has all shifted to the makeshift galleries. It is a sea of heads. I clamber up and get my first sight of the bull. It is brown and has a garland of yellow flowers around its neck. For the moment it looks docile enough as its owner holds aloft a steel pot that he has won. “That is because no one could tame his bull,” explains a fellow spectator. “See that yellow flag in front of the vadi vaasal? That marks the boundary. Once the bull crosses that line, it cannot be touched.” If the contestants cannot apprehend the bull in that space, they forfeit the prize.
A shout of “Look, a big one is coming,” goes up in the crowd. “Maadu varudhu, maadu varudhu” (here comes the bull) announces the mike. A hulk of a bull with its menacing hump charges out. Men lunge at it. But only one of them seizes the hump. He holds on to it with all his might as the bull leaps in the air, shakes its head violently and bounds ahead in a cloud of dust. The man refuses to let go. There are loud cheers and whistles. The excited announcer screams: “Aha! Maadu pidi pattadhu! (The bull has been caught)”. Several hands reach out to the hero. They ruffle his hair, pat his back. He wins a bicycle. Holding it aloft, he does a victory lap around the arena, head held high.
Once again it starts. The bull streaks out like a bolt of lightning. This time it is too quick for the contestants and it darts past the boundary. The owner follows it, all smiles; the bull has won plastic chairs for him.
The crowds go berserk when these untamed bulls march out of the arena. Some of the animals slow down to check out the spectators, who oblige them with whistles. An untamed bull turns its head left and right on the way out and nods at the crowd. It then marches on, nose in the air.
The time the bull spends in the arena, it is truly fearful. Even its owners tread carefully. An ebony hued bull decides to be difficult. He stands there thrusting his horns at anyone who dares come close. It takes six men to walk it out of the grounds.
Tired and dusty, I meet Kodangi from Mangalakudi. He is a happy man. His bull dodged many a valiant tamer. The man tends to the bull like his own child. He feeds it raw-rice flour, coconuts and cotton seeds, which come up to Rs.3, 000 a month. “We make sure he has his kanji, even if we don't have ours,” he says, simply.
Chithiran's camp is happy too. “My bull won. See, they gave me a prize,” he says, pointing to a steel utensil. His Alanganallur bull is tied to a tree close-by. “He's not ferocious all the time,” offers Chithiran. “Back home, it's the women who tend to him.”