Pride, belief, fear keep ancient ritual alive

From rustic fears that failure to hold the annual bull-taming sport will incur divine wrath and cause an epidemic in the village to the obvious pride in participating in it, ‘jallikattu' has come to stay as part of the tradition and culture of rural Tamil Nadu.

Seen as mere baiting of bulls and display of cruelty by animal rights activists, but venerated by villagers as a symbol of antiquity and the martial tradition of Tamils, ‘jallikattu' evokes varying reactions from different sections of society. It is part of the three-day celebrations of Pongal, the harvest festival of the Tamil people.

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In most villages in the southern districts, bull taming is conducted on the second and third days of Pongal. Palamedu and Alanganallur villages near Madurai become the centres of attraction as tens of thousands of people gather to watch the spectacle of bulls from all over Tamil Nadu, numbering close to 1000, being unleashed in the arena to test the taming skills of the fighters.

Historical references show that ‘jallikattu,' known in ancient times as ‘Yeru thazhuvuthal,' was popular among warriors during the Tamil classical period.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 Tamil terms ‘salli kaasu' (coins) and ‘kattu' (a package) tied to the horns of bulls as prize money. Later, in the colonial period, this term changed to ‘jallikattu.'

A well-preserved seal found at Mohenjodaro in the 1930s is available at the Delhi Museum, which depicts the bull fighting practice prevalent during the Indus Valley Civilization (The Hindu, January 3, 2008).

In ‘jallikattu,' all that the fighters have to do is to pounce on the running bull, try to hold on to its hump and move along with the animal without falling or getting hurt. It requires quick reflexes and a fleet foot to tame the recalcitrant bull, which will try to get away, shake off the fighter and, at times, stamp or gore the fallen participants.

In Palamedu village, ‘jallikattu' will be held on January 16 by a committee called the Mahalingasamy Grama Podhu Madam, established in 1972. It consists of 11 members belonging to different caste groups. To avoid a confrontation, the first bull to run down the long lane is the Mahalingasamy Madathu Podhu Kaalai. The first respect in terms of caste goes to the Palamedu East Street Manja Malai Kaalai (bull) belonging to Dalits (Devendra Kula Vellalars); then North Street Ayyanar Kaalai; South Street Pattallamman Koil Kaalai and 24 Manai Telugu Chetty Pattu Satha Koil Kaalai in that order.

There are some myths associated with ‘jallikattu.' Most bull owners name their animal after the gods associated with their lineage. Some believe that if they fail to take the bull to the Vaadi Vaasal (entry point to the fighting area) it will harm the family.

Palamedu panchayat president C. Narayanasamy says ‘jallikattu' is organised for divine purposes. “If we do not conduct ‘jallikattu' the village is in danger of being affected by an epidemic.” Palamedu, on the day of ‘jallikattu,' wears a festive look and the villagers in and around get an opportunity to have their own small stalls, which sells food items ranging from beef, chicken and pig fry to sugarcane juice and ‘jigarthanda'. It provides a chance for visitors and tourists to get a feel of rural life.

At Alanganallur, one can see posters put up in remembrance of “fallen heroes” who died fighting the bulls. Villagers still remember Hundial alias Senthil who was gored to death by a bull while fighting it at the Alanganallur event in 2005. He was just 20. His brother Ravi, 18, when asked about the loss of his brother, says it was not a loss as he died a brave man. However, Ravi avoids participating in ‘jallikattu.'

Ayyur Ayothee (43), a bull fighter, who has participated in events across the State and won prizes said: “Injuries are what you get at the end of the day and nothing else. But still ‘jallikattu' should be conducted and it lies with the individual whether to participate in it or not.”