In the Tamil landscape, the word Kaalai (a bull) immediately conjures up the image of a five-foot animal having pigmented skin with a big hump, a longer and narrower face with sharp eyes and tapered ears, along with a pair of conical horns, well-developed dewlap, and long legs. The bull in mind is none other than the Kangayam breed.
The habitat and distribution of Kangayam cattle are spread across eight districts in western Tamil Nadu, generally referred to as Kongu Nadu. “The Kangayams are one of the most documented breeds of Tamil Nadu,” says Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, managing trustee, Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, whose family is known for conservation of the breed. He established the foundation near Muthur in 2009 to preserve the breed as well as Korangadu, a unique silvi-pasture found in western Tamil Nadu that is necessary to sustain the species.
Migration from Indus Valley
Mr. Sivasenapathy traces the breed to the migration of people from the Indus Valley to the peninsular part of India, who brought the cattle along. He also quoted the documented works by researchers Iravatham Mahadevan and R. Balakrishnan about the migratory connection of Kangayams with the Harappan civilisation.
The Kangayam bulls and cows are an excellent draught breed that were widely used to operate Yetram, a manual method in which a scoop-like pouch, made of leather or rubber, was used to lift and pour the water from the wells. The animals have to move front and back to lift water from the well using the pouch that hangs on a rope.
“Evolution of breeds and varieties are a product of the complex interplay of nature and culture,” said Mr. Senapathy, showing the photo of his ancestor Rao Bahadur N. Nallathambi Sarkarai Mandradiyar, who was responsible for shaping the present-day Kangayam bull.
It was in the 1920s that the Mandradiyar family had involved in the selective breeding of Kangayams, without altering the purpose to increase its charm and beauty, at Palayakottai village in the present-day Tiruppur district, as the bulls were not much attractive earlier.
Recognition in 1920s
Kangayam is the first of the five recognised breeds of Tamil Nadu, with the others being Umblachery, Pulikulam, Alambadi, and Bargur. The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, under the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, maintains a herd book documenting the morphological characteristics of a particular variety of animals having a population of over 20,000 and subsequently gives the breed tag. The Kangayam cattle were recognised as a breed by the British government in the 1920s.
Poochi Kaalai (a stud bull) is selected on the basis of its height, the length of its legs, and the formation of its hump. When the bulls attain a moderate level of dentition around three years of age, they are left to cover the heifers to get the best offspring. The cows usually calve 12 times in their lifecycle.
The erstwhile Government of Madras took steps to popularise the breed. In 1942, the then Imperial Council for Agricultural Research implemented the ‘Kangayam Cattle Improvement Scheme’. After Independence, with the help of Five Year Plans, the breeding and adjoining tracts of Kangayams were improved. Mr. Senapathy highlighted that after the 1970s, the emphasis was shifted to exotic milch breeds to increase milk production.
The population of the breed in the 1940s was around 34 lakh, and declined to 2.42 lakh in 2003. In recent times, it was reduced to 1.5 lakh, Mr. Senapathy said, urging the government to take a livestock census and promote efforts to conserve the breed. The Kangayam bulls are associated with civilisation and culture because of the practice of sedentary pastoralism, a technique in which pastoralists settle at a particular place with vast grazing land (‘Korangadu’ in this case), unlike their nomadic counterparts who used to move from one place to another as seasons changed.
The staple food of Kangayams that grow in Korangadu are Kollukattaipul (Cenchrus ciliaris), Vennampul (Trachys muricata), Ottampul (Setaria verticillata) and legumes such as Naripayathan Kodi (Phaseolus trilobus). The pods that fall from the Vellai Velan tree (Acacia leucophloea) are the supplementary fodder.
Mr. Senapathy pointed out that exotic species such as Parthenium and Lantana camara are invading the grassland and posing a threat to the growth of the native grasses. In cultural sports, Kangayams are widely used for the Rekla race in the Kongu and Theni regions because of their strong thigh muscles. Only 5% of the Kangayams are involved in jallikattu, unlike Pulikulam and Umblachery which are widely used.
The cattle show at Vellakoil attracts lakhs of visitors every year.