Jallikattu in the time of a pandemic: What is different this year?

Bull fighters participating in the famous Alanganallur Jallikattu near Madurai on January 17, 2010   | Photo Credit: G Moorthy

Babloo the bull, is ready to charge out of the vaadivasal (entry way) for the first time at the Alanganallur jallikattu on January 16.

At two years, with just four teeth, Babloo is technically only a calf. He has been pampered for the past six months — “like a baby”, as K Vignesh, who along with his grandfather and mother is responsible for Babloo’s care, puts it. The 24-year-old is among several young men in and around Alanganallur, the epicentre of the world-famous bull-taming event in Madurai district, who have turned bull-owners this year owing to the pandemic.

The game is on (Clockwise from above) At Alanganallur jallikattu 2020; owners tend to their bulls like their children

The game is on (Clockwise from above) At Alanganallur jallikattu 2020; owners tend to their bulls like their children   | Photo Credit: G Moorthy

“I saved up around ₹25,000 from my work with a contractor involved in stone-laying,” says Vignesh, adding, “I didn’t have work during lockdown and decided to invest in a bull.”

He bought Babloo from Usilampatti six months ago. His employer, G Selva, also from Alanganallur, too has bought two bulls.

Vignesh admits he is jittery about the big day. “Jallikattu is not new to me. I have been participating from my teens, but this is Babloo’s first time,” he says, adding, “We have no idea about his temperament. Will he sprint out fearlessly or hesitate at the sight of the crowd? I cannot tell you how anxious I am.”

New entrants

There are three big jallikattu tournaments held during Pongal in Madurai every year: at Avaniyapuram, Palamedu, and Alanganallur. These events attract thousands from across the country and abroad, including bull owners from across the State who train their animals through the year for the big day.

This year, though, jallikattu will be strictly controlled. Participants and bull owners are to take COVID-19 tests a couple of days before the event, and seating arrangements will be spaced out.

Jallikattu bulls are loved and revered by their owners

Jallikattu bulls are loved and revered by their owners   | Photo Credit: G Moorthy

The most notable change brought about by the pandemic and lockdown is the increase in the number of first-time bull owners. Several men, like Vignesh, have put together their earnings to buy bulls.

“Nine of my friends bought bulls during lockdown,” says M Sakthivel, a jallikattu champion from Alanganallur. “This time, 162 bulls from across 19 villages around Alanganallur have registered for the tournament. Last year, we had only 120,” the 25-year-old points out.

T Godwin, a physical education teacher from Alanganallur, puts this trend down to the urge to “do something” to combat lockdown-induced boredom. “The mood in the village is vibrant now. Everywhere I see, there are young men walking their bulls. I saw similar scenes in Madurai town as well. Some 15 boys were cheerfully walking four muscular bulls,” he remarks.

Alanganallur’s sprightly jallikattu champions did struggle through lockdown though; not all bulls were as lucky as Babloo. A good diet for the animals usually includes cotton seeds, sesame seeds and groundnut oil cakes, toor dal dust and wheat dust mixed with water, and irumbu cholam (a millet variety).

“My bull did not get any special food for five months since I didn’t have an income,” says Sakthivel, adding, “It is only during the past one month that I have been able to offer a good feed.”

A different scenario

Nevertheless, the bulls are fit; and so are the players, according to M Malar Mannan, a champion from Alanganallur. “Physical activity is a given for people like us who lead a rural lifestyle,” says the 33-year-old. “We walk around hills, swim with our bulls in ponds, and as a result we are fit through the year and do not require any special training,” he adds.

Mannan is less excited about jallikattu this year, a sport he has been participating in since he was 19. “Jallikattu is all about sweating it out amid mud as crowds cheer. Feeling my fellow players’ breath on my face, almost hearing his beating heart from behind as he awaits to pounce on a bull… for me, these define the jallikattu experience. I am not sure how this mood will be recreated in a strictly-controlled set up,” he says.

Bull owners tend to their bulls at Alanganallur

Bull owners tend to their bulls at Alanganallur   | Photo Credit: G Moorthy

Sakthivel, however, has other worries. Usually, veteran players who throng the vaadivasal as the bulls are released offer precious tips to players. “They quickly pass on information about each bull. Things like ‘let this one go’, ‘this one is a sprinter’, ‘hold this one by the hump’ and so on,” says Sakthivel, adding, “But this time, there are several new bulls in the tournament. No one knows how they will react or how they will charge.”

He adds, “In that sense too, this jallikattu is going to be something new.”

  • Preparing for the big day
  • Bulls are given an oil bath at a local pond once every two or three days for up to a month before the event.
  • Swimming and walking are an essential part of their training.
  • The horns are rubbed in castor oil in preparation for the tournament and tended to by specialists.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 3:44:28 AM |

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