-- Kalithogai, Mullaikali, verse 102.
These four lines of Kalithogai , an ancient work of Tamil literature, capture the key ingredients of an exciting bull taming sport - dust in the air, able physique of tamers, ferocious bulls stooping to conquer and agitated mood of spectators. This is the earliest reference in Tamil literature to bullfight. Eru thazhuval (embracing the bull), the precursor to jallikattu was common in ancient Tamil Nadu among pastoral community inhabiting the Mullai (forest) landscape. Later, it spread to other landscapes. Another ancient reference to bull taming is found in a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, which is dated between 2500 BC and 1800 BC.
References to people enjoying fights between bulls as a pastime are found in Malaipadukadaam and to bull taming in Silappatikaaram. Ancient paintings of bullfight have been found in Kalloothu Mettupatti near Madurai and Karikkiyur in The Nilgiris.
Bull taming had different names, till it metamorphosed into modern-day jallikattu ( salli means coin and kattu is package tied to the bull’s horns) - erukol, eru thazhuval, eruthu kattu, kaalai anaiththal, maadu anaiththal and manju virattu.
“Bull taming as a sport is found in all ancient civilizations. It was used to benchmark men’s valour. In Tamil tradition, taming a bull was seen as a guarantee for security of the bride,” says V. Vedachalam, noted epigraphist.
Supplementing this view, S. Venkatesan, Sahitya Akademi winner, who has devoted one chapter in his novel Kaaval Kottam to jallikattu , points out that bull taming is one of the many remnants of ancient Tamil culture that are still alive. The organic linkages are manifest in different forms in southern districts. “Every village in Madurai region has a temple or a memorial stone or a ballad in memory of a bull fighter or a bull. Even taxes were remitted in memory of bull tamers who gave up their lives while upholding the village tradition in a bull fight. The Alagathevan Paadal sung in villu pattu concerts is an example,” says Mr. Venkatesan.
Whenever a girl child was born in a family, the father bought a cow and a male calf. As the child grew up into a damsel the calf was nurtured to become a ferocious bull. The man who tamed it in a jallikattu won the woman as bride.
Though bull taming has its origins in tribal communities, it has been following well defined rules. The sport was held inside a barricaded arena around which women were seated in galleries at vantage points. The beginning and end were announced by tom-tom and the injured were immediately taken away for treatment. More importantly, it was always a one-on-one fight, unlike the modern day ‘free-for-all.’
K. Appadurai’s 1800 Aandugatkku Murpatta Tamizhagam gives a vivid description of a Pandiya Naadu Eruthu Panthayam.
Apart from being a pastime, bull taming has remained a symbol of Tamil culture. It was similar to ‘suyamvaram’ and also symbolised a cordial man-animal relationship. “For the owner, the bull was a member of the family. Native breeds used in bullfights ensured biodiversity and acted as geographical indicators,” says B. Thirumalai of Madurai.