History & Culture

On Jallikattu and its earliest evidence in Tamil Sangam poetry

Bullfighters try taming an enraged bull at Avaniyapuram Jallikattu festival in Madurai.  

The month of Thai, an auspicious Tamil month, begins. During this month last year, Tamil Nadu saw massive popular protests demanding the legalisation of jallikattu, a sport that involves the taming of bulls.

The scale and fervour of the protests caught many by surprise, leaving scholars fumbling for an explanation. One reason for the passion jallikattu invoked could be the long history of the sport, and its embeddedness in the cultural economy of the Tamils.

The earliest evidence of the sport comes from Kalithogai, an anthology of 150 poems, which is part of the corpus of Tamil Sangam poetry. M.L. Thangappa, who won the Sahitya Akademi translation award in 2012 for Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, has translated the anthology, which I had the honour to edit and introduce.

Dating to the early centuries of the common era, Kalithogai poems are found in the section on ‘Mullai’ — poems set in pastoral land — and provide the earliest descriptions of an ancient sport called eru thazhuvuthal (literally, ‘embracing the bull’).

Attributed to poet Nalluruthiran, the five poems, totalling some 350 lines, conjure up the thrill, tumult and breathless pace of jallikattu. In the 14th century, the phenomenally erudite Nachinarkiniyar, praised as ‘star commentator among scholars’, provided glossary and elucidation — testimony that jallikattu was a continuing tradition.

From these nearly 2000-year-old poems and their medieval commentary, it is striking how little the sport has changed: the mad rush of the bulls into the ring, the enthusiasm of the young men out to tame them, the spilt blood as man meets bull, the honour and lives at stake, the egging on by spectators… perhaps only foreign tourists are missing!

Below is one of the translated poems, which tries to capture the drama of the original.

[The girl’s friend speaks]

The monsoon showers fall

and make the pasture lands cool.

The thorny pidavam puts forth


on the barren boughs

and the buds unfold.

The kodal clusters, swaying like a


bear bright red flowers

that look like flames from a fire drill.

And then there are the


kaya flowers

and others too.

Cowherds deck themselves with


and garlands made from these


and gather in the open

throwing their formidable challenge.

The killer bulls are let loose into the


whose sharpened horns shine

like Siva’s battle-axe.

Then come the beating drums

Sounding like thunder.

Smoke goes up and dust raised.

Maidens come and stand in a row.

Having worshipped their gods,

who dwelt besides the fords

and under the banyan and

maraamara trees,

brave young men desiring to win the

maidens’ hands

by subduing the wild-spirited bulls,

enter the arena.

Look at the silkworm-coloured bull

piercing his brave adversary with his


and goring him!

He looks like the brave one who

broke open

the heart

of the ruffian who had laid his hands

on the hair of the gentle lady

and took his revenge in the midst of

his foes.

Here is the black-coloured one

with a bright white spot on his fore


Look at him bearing down on his


piercing his stomach

and ripping out his intestines.

Doesn’t he look like the Supreme


digging into the bosom of Death

and pulling out his intestines

to offer them as food for the ghouls?

And now to the white bull with red


His challenger is brave and unafraid

but the bull thrusts his horns

into his chest and disables him.

Looks like the one who avenged his


by twisting off his enemy’s head at

the dead

of night.

Listen to the flute played

by a shepherd in the evening,

which will bring you your young man

who wears a beautiful garland.

[She turns to the lover and speaks to


‘Young man,

if you can overcome this bull,

angrier than a rutting elephant,

this girl will hold aloft the banner of


We will give our dark-haired girl in


to the young man who will tame

the killer bull that stands beside his

master —

the one with a garland,

playing a sad melody on his flute

and holds his staff against his


[to her friend again]

‘Your young man who boasts of his


Over the other bullfighters

will marry you some day without fail

That is why we welcome him with

our eyes

most graciously.’

The bulls are tired.

The young men are injured.

And our girls wearing fragrant

flowers on

their hair

join their lovers

and go into the cool jasmine groves

with a desire to make love.


Our code of editorial values

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a Tamil historian.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 9:14:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/jallikattu-with-horns-like-shivas-battle-axe/article22430307.ece

Next Story