In the land of the raging bull: Alanganallur on the day of jallikattu

Jallikattu in Madurai’s Alanganallur village is a wild ride with over 20,000 spectators; showers of gold coins; generous community lunches and tonnes of festivity.

January 18, 2023 06:34 pm | Updated January 19, 2023 05:47 pm IST

Players at the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur village near Madurai try to tame a bull that flies out of the entrance.

Players at the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur village near Madurai try to tame a bull that flies out of the entrance. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

It is a day before the Jallikattu event at Alanganallur and 18-year-old V Sneha is tending to the cows at her house. Her two bulls, both named Ariyamalai, purchased when she was young, are grunting in the corner. Sneha says that they are raring to go through the vaadivasal (entrance to the jallikattu arena) but will have to wait for a good 15 hours before the action kicks in.

Sneha began rearing bulls for Alanganallur jallikattu five years ago, hot off the jallikattu protests in 2017. “We always had cows in the house but everyone was talking about saving the native breeds and the idea of training jallikattu bulls appealed to me. We all took part in the protests as a family and soon after, our first Ariyamalai came to our house,” says Sneha.

Watch | What is special about Madurai’s Alanganallur jallikattu?

The first year she released her bull into the arena, she was showered with gifts from the jallikattu organising committee as she was among a few women releasing bulls. She has since been called a veera tamizhachi (valorous Tamil lady).Before her fifth year at the arena, the 18-year-old says she is both nervous and confident.

After her daily chores that involve feeding the cows and collecting manure, she, her sisters and brothers are off to train the bulls, bathe them in the local water tank and teach them new tricks. Sneha’s family allocates about ₹100 a day to feed the jallikattu bulls as it is a matter of pride.

Bull fighters trying to latch on to the bulls in the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur village near Madurai.

Bull fighters trying to latch on to the bulls in the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur village near Madurai. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

This is true for several families in Alanganallur who spend a chunk of their daily income rearing and training jallikattu bulls. Since the protest, tournaments have sprouted across Tamil Nadu. However, A Saravanakumar or Dissi as his friends call him, says that the one at Alanganallur is the most prestigious event. They even have a large painting and arch claiming so.

Unlike in other arenas in Madurai where the bulls enter the vaadivasal and make a straight run for the collection point, the bulls here must face the viewing gallery and take a left to exit. This requires practice. The bulls must be trained to get out of the narrow vaadivasal and not shoot out and run. Only the bulls that stand in the arena, intimidate and play with the players are deemed worthy enough to win prizes at the end.

On the eve, after official inspections, coconut husk is thrown on the road that transforms into the arena to ensure that any fall on the ground is soft. Over 2,000 prize bags with a gold coin, dhoti and sweet box in each are ready for distribution for every single bull owner. Alanganallur starts receiving a stream of visitors the night before. They stay everywhere — in friends’ houses, small sheds, barns, near fields and on the road, hoping to get through the night and have their bulls bring them glory.

Dawn

It is 3 am and Sneha has not slept a wink. She has spent the night discussing strategy but mostly distracting herself from what is to follow. The nerves have gotten to her.

At 5 am, the family decides that it is time. Her two bulls and the one belonging to her joint family are freed from the shed and taken to the Gangaiamman temple for a small puja. The bulls are then walked all the way to the bull-assembly point with their token and fitness certificates.

Around the same time, as day breaks in, crowds begin gathering outside the venue. The yearly tussle between police personnel (about 2,000 of them) and the public (over 10 times the number) is a common sight.

As the event is about to begin, an oath, introduced since the protests to pledge fair play and more importantly not to hurt the bulls, is taken by all players and even the police, medical personnel, government servants, and bull rearers.

Bulls run back from the collection point at the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur near Madurai on Tuesday.

Bulls run back from the collection point at the Jallikattu event in Alanganallur near Madurai on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Alanganallur Jallikattu is flagged off and the first set of bulls — the three temple bulls of the village covered in tonnes of sandalwood and kumkumam, run fiercely out of the vaadivasal to ensure an auspicious start. Soon, the contest begins, bulls making their way to the arena. The bulls that play well and the tamers who catch the bulls have been promised a ‘thanga mazhai’ or a ‘shower of gold’. Quite literally, the committee throws gold coins in pouches for the victors to catch.

A decorated bull enters the jallikattu arena in Alanganallur.

A decorated bull enters the jallikattu arena in Alanganallur. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

A bull is considered ‘pidi maadu’ (or caught) if the tamer holds on to it as it spins three times or till it crosses a 50-metre mark set inside the arena. The bull is deemed the victor if it plays — poking the husk on the ground, intimidating the players or shaking off tamers who hold on to the hump. The players cannot catch the bull by the tail or the horns.

Noon

It is 12.30 pm. As Sneha inches closer to the arena, she phones her family. “Turn on the TV. My number is up soon. We are close to the vaadivasal,” she says.

Minutes before she enters, she prays a little. When it is her turn, a lot of it is blurry, she says. While two bulls enter the arena, they get caught by the tamers. The last one belonging to her family enters the arena. There is confusion. “Our last bull wasn’t caught, but the committee wrongly announced it was,” she says.

Sneha bolts out of the arena upset. She is given a single gold coin, a box of sweets and a dhoti. This is unlike the previous years where she won sarees, gold, bicycles and utensils.

It is a tough day for the organising committee too. The pace at which bulls are released into the arena is usually quicker.

The morning crowds too head back home for lunch. Today, they will feast on chicken, mutton and egg dishes — prepared in the early hours of the day by the women of the family. Alanganallur residents like A Sivalingam and S Malar, a couple living close to the viewing gallery, provide food for anyone who is hungry — a non-vegetarian meal that is a rare feast in their own house. “We have bought 12 kgs of chicken and 3 kgs of mutton this time. There is also rice, sambar and rasam. We have seen the depths of poverty. We are doing slightly better now so we try to give back on this one day,” says the vegetable seller.

A. Sivalingam, a resident of Alanganallur, and his wife S. Malar prepare food in bulk each year to serve hungry visitors. This is their 20th year of hosting strangers for meals.

A. Sivalingam, a resident of Alanganallur, and his wife S. Malar prepare food in bulk each year to serve hungry visitors. This is their 20th year of hosting strangers for meals. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

People can be seen lining up outside stalls that local residents erect for the day. Among the more popular dishes of the day are ragi and keppai koozh (porridge) and mutton biriyani. In some parts, one can also see pork curry being sold.

Dusk

The snack counters eventually lead us to Sneha’s house located only minutes away from the arena. It is now 3.30 pm and she has been inconsolably sobbing for three hours straight. Her dreams have come crashing down, she says. “I will work so much harder for next year,” she manages to say. Her pride is hurt but mostly, she feels defeated.

Sneha, who finished school last year, says that her family is not willing to spend money for all three years of her college education as they cannot afford it. “We are still paying back debts of the past. My aim though is to become a police officer. All the jallikattu training will come in handy sometime then, I guess,” she says.

Outside her house, boys carrying cycles and almirahs they won as prizes cheer. Their bulls that have finished playing in the jallikattu continue to think that the event is not over. Some of them terrorise pedestrians on the street and run into the farms nearby.

Foreigners taking part in Pongal celebrations at Alanganallur on Monday.

Foreigners taking part in Pongal celebrations at Alanganallur on Monday.

The winners of the Jallikattu event — the best bull tamer and the rearer finally take back two brand new cars besides currency and other goodies. Tonight, the car that can fit a cozy six will see nearly 15 heads sprouting out of it. Tonight, everyone, even the losers celebrate.

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