At his farm house in Karuppukaal near Madurai, P. Rajasekhar has a set of seven bulls that are relaxing under a ceiling fan, feasting on a healthy diet of cottonseed mixed with dates.
Only a few days are left before the animals are let loose in the arena for this year's jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming sport of Tamil Nadu associated with Pongal festivities and which evokes passionate support from the rural folk and spirited opposition from animal-lovers.
The bulls of Mr. Rajasekar, founder- president of the Jallikattu Padhugappu Peravai, a forum aimed at preserving the traditional bull-taming sport of Tamil Nadu, are famous for their ferocity and rage. One of his bulls, Appu, is famous across the State, wherever jallikattu is held. It has its own fan base in places such as Tiruchi and Madurai, where its entry into the arena is greeted with frenetic whistling and thunderous applause.
The eleven-year-old bull has never been tamed ever since it entered the ‘vaadi vaasal' (entry point) as a three-year-old, says P. Balasubramani, brother of Mr. Rajasekhar, with pride. “We have been rearing bulls for generations for jallikattu and the connection with the animal is part of our martial tradition.”
Another bull, referred to as Sevala Kaalai for its brownish red skin colour, looks majestic with its heavy build and huge hump. This, again, is a bull that remains a favourite in the bustling and intense arenas of Alanganallur and Palamedu near here, as it ambles away untamed on every occasion.
Three caretakers live in the farm to ensure special care for the seven bulls. C. Thamaraiselvan is busy unpacking a sack of mountain gooseberry, while C. Karuppiah is mixing corn flour with wheat flour and getting ready to mix it with cottonseeds to feed the bulls after a training session.
These bulls are not used for any productive farming purpose; they follow a strict regimen for a year and are engaged in rigorous training to build their stamina, which includes running and swimming sessions.
To get the bull charged up, it is taken to a heap of mud or sand within the field and tied there; here the bull ploughs through the mud with its sharp horns. This part of the training is to get it battle-ready to go after a bull-tamer lying prone on the ground.
The villagers also organise ‘mock jallikattu' where five to six men try to tame the bull. This mock exercise helps them learn and hone their taming skills and overcome any fear of the bull. They learn about finding the best possible position to hold on the bull's hump without getting hurt, to avoid a raging bull and to swing out of the way of its rampaging horns.
Now regulated by law and subject to stringent conditions imposed at the instance of the Supreme Court, the bull-taming sport will be held under administrative and medical supervision to avoid injury to players and spectators or ill-treatment of the bulls.
Its proponents believe that jallikattu not only provides scope for fighters to showcase their bravery but also signifies honour. On their part, bull owners take great pride in seeing the animals they have trained staying untamed, while the fighters run for cover. In a sense, these raging bulls have become traditional symbols of masculinity.
As some fighters who have seen action at Palamedu and Alanganallur confided: “There are bulls that we avoid because of previous experience and also as a mark of respect for the owners. We leave certain bulls untamed, thus keeping the pride of the owners intact.”