Meet the athletic native bulls of Tamil Nadu, popular at jallikattu during Pongal festivities

Native cattle such as Kangayam and Pulikulam make headlines during Pongal, when jallikattu begins. We find out why these breeds are so special to farmers, tamers and players

Updated - January 12, 2023 05:46 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2023 04:09 pm IST

A bull being bathed by its caretaker at Madakulam tank in Madurai

A bull being bathed by its caretaker at Madakulam tank in Madurai | Photo Credit: MOORTHY G

Muni spends most his day ambling along the dirt roads of Alanganallur. Everyone in the village near Madurai, popular for the yearly jallikattu event, knows him. He has breakfast at one house, walks over to another when he feels like having a snack. He is everyone’s pet, the oor kaalai or village bull that was donated to the Muniyandi temple there. He is the first bull to exit the vaadivaasal, where tamers await, signaling the start of the year’s jallikattu.   

“We have recorded over 45 temples in and around Madurai dedicated to such bulls,” says Dr G Sivakumar, veterinary assistant surgeon at Vilachery Veterinary Dispensary in Madurai. All of these are cattle native to the soil. Now that Pongal is here, rearers are busy preparing their bulls and themselves for jallikattu, a bull-taming sport held as part of the festivities in various places in Tamil Nadu. Indigenous cattle take centre stage in the event, popular especially in and around Madurai.

Pulikulam and Theni hill cattle are the two varieties that are top players at jallikattu

Pulikulam and Theni hill cattle are the two varieties that are top players at jallikattu | Photo Credit: MOORTHY G

“Pulikulam and Theni hill cattle are the two varieties that are top players at jallikattu,” says Sivakumar, who is part of the team that will be present at the venue during the event. “They are known for the characteristic leap as they charge out of the vaadivaasal,” he adds. He has so far overseen bulls at four jallikattu events over the past ten years and is inspecting the animals walking into his clinic to obtain medical certificates, as we speak. The document is mandatory for a bull to participate in the event.

 At Alanganallur village near Madurai, a school girl tends to her bull

At Alanganallur village near Madurai, a school girl tends to her bull | Photo Credit: MOORTHY G

Among the key aspects he checks for, apart from the bull’s overall body condition, is to see if it is a pure bred. “Ever since jallikattu picked up in popularity over the past few years, more and more youngsters are coming forward to buy native cattle,” he points out, adding: “College students in Madurai, for instance, get together to buy a calf, and pool in money to take care of it through the year. There is an increase in awareness on native cattle and their benefits.”

According to Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, managing trustee of Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, a conservation and breeding centre based in Tiruppur, cattle, the world over, are named after the geographic location they are from. “We have the Ongloe in Andhra Pradesh, Khillari and Deoni in Maharashtra, and Amrit Mahal in Karnataka,” he says, adding: “Indigenous to west Tamil Nadu, are the Kangayam; in East Tamil Nadu, it is Umblachery; while Pulikulam, Theni hill cattle and Alambadi are from the South.”

Karthikeya says that the evolution of native breeds is connected to the culture of the region they are from. “Their popularity went down in the 1970s after the introduction of the Intensive Cattle Development Project,” he says. This resulted in exotics from places such as Europe entering India to be cross bred.

Native breeds, however, are known to be better suited for our landscape. “They are disease resistant, and their milk is valuable due to its flavour,” says Sivakumar. Karthikeya feels that one way to increase their population is to make them dual purpose, namely milch and draught (working) animals.

Youth trying to tame a bull at a jallikattu held at Koothappar village in Tiruchi

Youth trying to tame a bull at a jallikattu held at Koothappar village in Tiruchi | Photo Credit: Moorthy M

Then, there are men who spend thousands on their cattle’s upkeep for pride and sentimental reasons. “I have seen some of them travel long distances to get their injured animal treated. Once, a jallikattu bull owner from Madurai took it to Orathanadu [in Thanjavur] for it to be operated upon to fix a plate in one of its legs,” says Sivakumar.  

Veterinary assistant surgeon Dr G Sivakumar at Vilachery Veterinary Clinic in Madurai

Veterinary assistant surgeon Dr G Sivakumar at Vilachery Veterinary Clinic in Madurai | Photo Credit: ASHOK R

Even as you read this, native bulls and cows across Tamil Nadu are gearing up for their yearly treat during Pongal. “In Alanganallur, all the bulls in the village will gather on a road behind the vaadivaasal a day before Pongal,” says M Malar Mannan, a bull rearer and jallikattu champion from the village. “A person from the headman’s family will tie a shawl around the bulls’ horns and offer them fruits and pongal,” he says. They will lounge on the road all dressed up, proudly displaying their muscular humps — a feature unique to native cattle.  

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