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Bull chasing, an ancient Tamil tradition

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ROCK CUT: A painting of bull chasing on a massive rock surface at Karikkiyur in the Nilgiris. These pictures, according to specialists in rock art, are dateable to 2,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. Karikkiyur is the biggest rock art site in south India, with the rock surface teeming with about 500 paintings.
ROCK CUT: A painting of bull chasing on a massive rock surface at Karikkiyur in the Nilgiris. These pictures, according to specialists in rock art, are dateable to 2,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. Karikkiyur is the biggest rock art site in south India, with the rock surface teeming with about 500 paintings.

T.S. Subramanian

Evident from paintings on a massive rock surface at Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris district

CHENNAI: That bull chasing is an ancient sport in Tamil Nadu is attested by the discovery of paintings on rock surfaces or caves in the State. There are several rock paintings, more than 3,500 years old, at remote Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu that show men chasing bulls.

Kaikkiyur, situated about 40 km from Kotagiri town, is the biggest rock art site in south India. The rock surface site, teeming with more than 500 paintings, was discovered by K.T. Gandhirajan, art historian, Prof. G. Chandrasekaran, Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai and others in 2004.

The paintings on a massive rock surface at Karikkiyur are done in white kaolin or red ochre, and show men chasing bulls, which seem to be a sturdy lot, with big humps and long and straight horns. A particularly arresting scene shows several men chasing three bulls, done in X-ray painting. The bulls, originally painted in X-ray fashion in white kaolin, were later painted in red ochre. The Kaikkiyur paintings are dateable between 2000 B.C. and 1500 B.C.

Another single painting discovered in a cave at Kalluthu Mettupatti, about 35 km west of Madurai, between Madurai and Dindigul, shows a lone man trying to control a bull. Mr. Gandhirajan estimated that this painting, done in white kaolin, was about 1,500 years old.

Protests have broken out in several villages including at Alanganallur and Palamedu in Madurai district and Siravayal in Sivaganga district after the Supreme Court on January 11 disallowed the organising of jallikattu (bull-baiting or bull fight) in Tamil Nadu. Jallikattu is held in several villages in the State during the Pongal festival. Mr. Gandhirajan, who is a post-graduate in Art History from Madurai-Kamaraj University, said the ancient Tamil tradition was “manju virattu” (chasing bulls) or “eruthu kattuthal” (lassoing bulls) and it was never “jallikattu,” that is baiting a bull or controlling it as the custom obtained today. In ancient Tamil country, during the harvest festival, decorated bulls would be let loose on the “peru vazhi” (highway) and the village youth would take pride in chasing them and outrunning them. Women, elders and children would watch the fun from the sidelines of the “peru vazhi” or streets. Nobody was injured in this. Or the village youth would take delight in lassoing the sprinting bulls with “vadam” (rope).

It was about 500 years ago, after the advent of the Nayak rule in Tamil Nadu with its Telugu rulers and chieftains, that this harmless bull-chasing sport metamorphosed into “jallikattu,” said Mr. Gandhirajan.

Gallery sport

The establishment of the “zamindari” system aided this, he said. The zamindars, to demonstrate their power, converted it into a “gallery sport” or spectator sport. They associated the sport with the local, village deities. Many zamindars grew sturdy bulls but they were never let into the ring for fear that some daring youth might succeed in baiting or controlling it and the zamindar would lose face. When it became a gallery sport, a narrow pathway with a gate (called “vadivasal” in Tamil) was built to let the bulls one by one into the open and the youth would be about 100 feet away to control it. Often, the ferocious bull would run into the excited crowd and a few may get killed. Sometimes, stampedes would erupt.

Mr. Gandhirajan said that while ancient rock and cave paintings showing bull chasing had been discovered in Tamil Nadu, there were no murals or sculptures in temples that showed “jallikattu.”

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