Vellaiyyan doesn’t like me. He lowers his head, flares his nostrils, and shoots out a spurt of air like a bullet, pawing the ground.
This jallikattu bull in Alanganallur village, 16 kilometres from Madurai, is the angriest of them all. Dull white with sharp horns, flesh at his chest falling in folds like chiffon, the country bull is tied at his owner T Kumar’s yard. M Sakthivel, a jallikattu champion, stands a safe distance from Vellaiyyan. “He won’t let anyone but a select few near him,” he says.
There is a sense of urgency at Alanganallur: young men scuttle about, shops sell colourful belts fitted with bells for cattle, fresh kolams are up at households: it is time.
This village is famous for the bull-taming event held on the third day of Pongal festivities every year, which attracts tourists from across the globe. At this time of the year, the village, with just a handful of streets and around 3,000 households, transforms into an arena with make-shift galleries for thousands of people, and cameras.
As the big day approaches, bull tamers who double up as bull caretakers, are on high alert.
Sakthivel is checking on Vellaiyyan and Marai, the two bulls he tends to through the year. “He had his first meal at around 11 am today,” says the 24-year-old. It comprised cotton seeds, sesame seed oil cakes, toor dal dust, and wheat dust mixed with water. “This fellow also likes some salt with his food,” chips in 22-year-old M Raja, another tamer who assists in Vellaiyyan’s caretaking. “We add some to his two meals — his second meal is at 7 pm.” Standing between them, the bull munches on straw and there is water available at his asking.
All set to run
A month close to jallikattu , portions become smaller. “We deduct wheat dust since it makes the bull feel heavy,” points out Sakthivel. “This tones the muscles and he becomes more agile.” Vellayyian’s trademark move as soon as he is set free from the vadivasal (entry point in front of which tamers wait at the ready) is to leap in the air. “This makes it impossible for people to grab him,” he adds.
Sakthivel is a local hero. He ‘caught’ — a term people here use to tame a bull — six bulls at Alanganallur, seven at Coimbatore, and six at the Tirupur jallikattu last year. Leading us towards Ramu, another bull he helps maintain, he says, “I look up to my seniors, they taught me the moves and techniques.” He leads a disciplined life. “I abstain from meat and alcohol for a one month before jallikattu ,” he says, adding, “To us, these bulls are like gods.”
Some tamers put together money to set up a gym in their neighbourhood, so they can work out through the year. Gym hours increase as jallikattu arrives. “I run in a ground nearby every morning and also go for a swim in a lake,” says Sakthivel. The bulls too get their share of exercise.
AP Saravanan, who owns Ramu, a calm and composed bull, bathes him twice a week — on Tuesdays and Sundays — as Pongal nears. But a bath in the pond, serves a larger purpose. The men let the bulls swim to exercise their leg muscles. This is a crucial part of the animal’s workout.
Ramu is getting his Sunday morning bath today. A Raja, a specialist, has been called to inspect the bull’s grey horns, which have a tapering white end. Bulls have the tendency to grind their horns into mud, and hence their horns usually suffer wear and tear. Raja douses them with plenty of castor oil. “It has a cooling effect,” he tells us, rubbing it all the way down to the head.
Saravanan then leads Ramu with a red rope to a pond nearby. In the early morning light, on the dirt road with thorny karuvelam trees on either side, the two of them walk side-by-side, Ramu’s girthy hump bobbing up and down as he marches on. A few more boys join in as Saravanan gently eases the bull into the water. After a few ungainly steps, the animal floats gracefully, holding his head above the surface of the water. “ Paathu, paathu (Careful, careful) ,” says Saravanan.
His grip on the rope tight, Saravanan swims ahead of Ramu, who follows him, eyes half-shut. This routine continues for 20 minutes, after which the two of them come to the bank. “He’s starting to pant,” says Saravanan, “Enough swimming for the day.” Now, it’s time for Ramu’s bath. It takes four men, 10 shampoo sachets, and a large tuft of straw, to scrub him clean. He stands patiently as they work foam into his back, visibly relaxed.
“We bathe the bulls on all three days starting from Pongal,” says Sakthivel, walking with Saravanan and his bull towards a temple, where the bull will get sandalwood paste applied on his face, horns, and body. “On jallikattu day, we put new, colourful ropes around their necks. They get new bells, a rose garland...” he smiles. “You should see them lunge out of the vadivasal shaking their bodies, sending rose petals flying.”
Saravanan believes in listening to his animal. On the morning of the festival, despite all the training through the year, if Ramu does not yield when he pulls his rope, Saravanan announces that his bull will not be participating. Says Saravanan, “His word is final.”