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Catching a sport by its horns

Irrespective of the legislative, judicial or political outcome, there is no doubt that pro-jallikattu protesters have won the day. But this triumphal moment also calls for introspection

January 21, 2017 12:04 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:58 pm IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

The Tamil word for ox and cattle, ‘maadu’, also means wealth. As the great book of wisdom, the Tirukkural, emphatically asserts, education is the real ‘maadu’. As the unprecedented mass uprising in Tamil Nadu unfolds , jallikattu, the sport of taming the bull, has now become a symbol of Tamil pride and identity. How did a sport with origins in a pastoral world capture the imagination of a vast and differentiated linguistic community and become its symbol?

Since Sangam literature

In the extraordinary body of poetry, termed as Sangam literature, is a text called Kalithokai . In five long poems, totalling over 300 breath-taking lines, it provides the first elaborate description of this ancient sport.

Though there is evidence in ancient rock art of forms of this sport, it is only in modern Tamil literary prose writing that we find extended descriptions of jallikattu.

The pioneer was B.R. Rajam Aiyar, the great vedantin and disciple of Swami Vivekananda. His Tamil novel, Kamalambal Charithiram (English translation: The Fatal Rumour , Oxford University Press), written in 1893, depicts the celebration accompanying the sport with men and women turning up in huge numbers. Rajam Aiyar also records technical terms associated with this sport.

Kothamangalam Subbu (‘Kalaimani’) is now largely known for his novel Thillana Mohanambal , later made into the eponymous film starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. Few know that his first foray into fiction, in the 1930s, was with a short story, ‘Manji Virattu’ (another form of jallikattu). Not satisfied with writing a short story on this theme, Subbu serialised a sprawling novel, Rao Bahadur Singaram , in the popular weekly, Ananda Vikatan . This story, centred on the romance between a young girl who raises a bull and a youth who sets out to tame it, was filmed ( Vilaiyattu Pillai , 1970) by the same team that produced Thillana Mohanambal .

But the locus classicus of jallikattu remains Ci.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadi Vaasal (English translation: The Arena , Oxford University Press). Conceiving it as a short story, Chellappa later expanded it into a novella. Out of print for a quarter of a century after its first publication in 1959, Vaadi Vaasal has over the last twenty years been reprinted more than a dozen times by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam — an indication of not only its literary merit but also the cultural importance accorded to it.

Many of these books, in their later impressions, were embellished with sketches and paintings by outstanding artistes such as K.M. Adhimoolam and Trotsky Marudhu. Meanwhile, articles by Panditamani M. Kathiresan Chettiar and other scholars provided an intellectual framework for the celebration of jallikattu as a Tamil sport.

This history of the literary representation of jallikattu is testimony to its enduring allure. A close look at the content of these literary texts provides insights into the changes taking place within the sport and its dynamic interaction with society.

The Kalithokai poems depicted the mood of riotous carnival where young men decked in colourful flowers ‘embraced the bull’ (‘ eru thazhuvuthal ’) and tamed it. Young women who watched this swore that they would not marry even in their next life a man who feared the bulls’ sharp horns. The focus of the poems is on the valour and the gore that accompanies this heroic feat.

In A.K. Ramanujan’s inspired translation, a passage reads, “Look, the bull,/ raised horns and skin tawny/ as certain silkmoths,/ he skewers to death/ the cowherd who sprang/ heedless of the look in the animal’s eyes,/ carries the carcass high and shakes it/ on his horns.” According to poetic convention the young men and women of Kalithokai belonged to the community of shepherds now identified with idaiyar , konar and yadavar .

Reflecting the power structure

By the time of B.R. Rajam Aiyar, the description of the festival becomes naturalistic, written with the eye of an ethnographer. Unlike the Kalithokai poems set in a stylised pastoral zone, the geographical location is now specified as (the erstwhile composite districts of) Madurai and Tirunelveli. The sport itself is imbricated in the dynamics of rural power structure.

By the time of Kothamangalam Subbu, the faultlines become clearer. ‘ Manji Virattu ’ is set in late 1920s Ramanathapuram district. The mood cannot be more festive, and Subbu records the practice of giving endearing names to the bulls. The crux of the story is the conflict between the always warring Agamudaiyar and Maravar castes, ending in violence and the suspension of the festival until it is restored by the advent of the Gandhian movement. For the first time we see the sport being celebrated as the valorous sport of Tamils.


In Ci.Su. Chellappa’s hands the sport expands into an exploration of the conflicts between man and man, and man and animal, and their interweaving provides subtle insights into the human predicament.

Interestingly, all the authors mentioned above were Brahmins, giving the lie to the argument that the sport is the preserve of a few dominant castes. As a non-corporatised communitarian sport, though undoubtedly reflective of social inequities, especially caste, jallikattu incorporates the entire gamut of the social order.

Paralleling the literary depiction of jallikattu was its filmic representation. From the 1960s the taming of the bull by the rural hero became a recurring trope. The convention reached its apogee in Rajinikanth’s Murattu Kaalai (1980). State patronage fuelled it, and Alanganallur, a fixture in the tourist map, became a metaphor for the sport.

Transformed by opposition

By this time, at least in the popular imaginary, jallikattu transcended its regional and caste definition, and became emblematic of Tamil culture. But the credit for unambiguously and unequivocally turning jallikattu into a symbol of all that is Tamil must go to its adversaries, both perceived and real — of animal lovers, of ‘north India’, of an insensitive Central government, of Hindutva and of the impersonal forces of globalisation. Thanks to them, jallikattu now stands enshrined as the symbol of Tamil cultural pride.

Irrespective of the legislative, judicial or political outcome, there is no doubt that the protestors have won the day. But this triumphal moment also calls for introspection. Jallikattu enthusiasts should ensure that the sport is regulated and animals are protected from harm. In a welcome sign, environmental groups, keen on preserving native breeds of bulls, are already in the fray. Hopefully they will take the lead in this matter. More importantly, the democratic character manifest in the upsurge should be reflected in jallikattu itself by making it more inclusive with the participation of the high and the low, the dominant and the oppressed.


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