Missing the bull's eye

The present debate on Jallikattu reveals the widening gap between an urban animal-rights activist concern and a rural-conservation ethic.

Updated - January 16, 2017 01:00 pm IST

Published - January 14, 2017 05:43 pm IST

The practice of Jallikattu is a controversial one, a matter of conflict between animal-rights and tradition. Can we get over the hump? | The Hindu Archives

The practice of Jallikattu is a controversial one, a matter of conflict between animal-rights and tradition. Can we get over the hump? | The Hindu Archives

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You aren’t a true ‘Tamizhan’ if you haven’t tamed a raging bull during the annual harvest festival of Pongal in January. Or so it would seem if one were to follow the recent arguments being made in favour of conducting the bull taming sport of Jallikattu that the Supreme Court of India banned in 2014 on charges of animal cruelty. While for the city dweller the sight of men chasing bulls may appear savage and crude, proponents of the sport from the agrarian community invoke tradition and culture to justify its continuation. Unfortunately both sides, while positioning themselves as acting in favour of the animal, are simply speaking past one another, ensuring the debate goes on endlessly.

It is well established that Jallikattu is an ancient sport symbolising man’s conquest of wild animals for the purpose of domestication. Archaeologists have discovered ancient-era inscriptions showing men chasing bulls for sport some 5,000 years ago. One such inscription has been preserved in the Government Museum in Tamil Nadu and another ancient seal depicting the same has been displayed at the National Museum in Delhi. A cave painting, estimated to be about 2,500 years old, discovered near Madurai depicted a lone man trying to control a bull,  according to a 2013 report in The Hindu .

K.T. Gandhirajan, archaeologist and researcher, told this writer that the present form of Jallikattu has a history dating back approximately 10,000 years ago, when humans first began to domesticate cattle.

“Bull-taming sports are found only in two parts of the world today, one in Madagascar and the other in Tamil Nadu,” he explained. “During the Neolithic period, human civilisation near Ancient Iraq [Mesopotamia] and the Indus valley had bulls with a hump, which they started taming for use in agriculture. This eventually led to sports with bulls developing, which involved catching them and bringing them under human control.”




Based on an interpretation of rock arts and inscriptions discovered from the Neolithic era, Mr. Gandhirajan said that the more appropriate form of the sport involves the clutching the bull’s back in an effort to bring it under control known as  eru thazhuvuthal . He supported the game in this form as it allowed cattle-rearers to identify men in the village who were good at the knack of domesticating bulls for its use in agriculture. But he also doubted if this was how the game was conducted during recent times.

The annual harvest festival in Tamil Nadu has an entire day dedicated to cattle known as Maattu Pongal. It is on this day that Jallikattu events are usually conducted. Bulls are not as useful to cattle-rearers as cows are, since they do not produce milk. In the present day, it is this logic that has driven many cattle-owners to use bulls for sport as it produces market value for them. T. Kathiravan, who heads the Jallikattu Vaadi Madu group based in Dindigul, says that during every Maattu Pongal they used to organise the bull-taming sport in their village. Though there was not much of a prize for it, the villagers participated enthusiastically as, ahead of the sports and soon after, the price of the animal went up in the cattle markets.

“In Alanganallur in Madurai, 800-900 bulls used to be brought for participation. Since farmers trained their bulls for the annual festival, the animals would turn restless if they weren't used for the sport as they did not have any avenue for expressing their ferocity. The bulls are by nature ferocious. When a stranger comes near them, the bull would nod its head and aim its horns at the approaching person,” Kathiravan said.

He said that in the last two years since the ban, cattle-rearers were finding it difficult to manage the rogue bulls reared by them. “Only games like Jallikattu and rekla races can keep them alive and in demand.” Feeding and maintaining each bull costs at least Rs. 100 a day.

The alternative would be to sell off the bulls that no longer serve any profits for those rearing them. They would end up in slaughterhouses for their meat.

“But trust me. I don’t have the heart to sell off my bulls for slaughter,” Kathiravan said.

Anthropologists studying the social history of bull fights have long associated the cultural meaning of such sports with fertility rituals and masculinity. In his famous essay ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’, Clifford Geertz, for instance, puns deliberately when talking about Balinese men and their obsession with their ‘cocks’.

A scene in the Tamil movie  Virumandi  starring Kamal Haasan, serves as a classic instance of the association of such sports with masculinity and the choosing of an appropriate mate in rural life. The hero takes on a bull to prove his masculine prowess before the entire village and his object of desire, the heroine. In the end, when he manages to overpower the bull, he gestures to the woman, as if to suggest “see I am strong and eligible.”

Karthikeya Sivasenapati, managing trustee of the Senapati Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation in Tiruppur, says Jallikattu should definitely be held as it is not just about men showing off their strength but also about the conservation of native cattle species, by helping with the breeding of animals. It is through games such as Jallikattu and cattle races like Rekla that the best bulls are identified for the purpose of impregnating cows in the village, he said.

Similar rural sports involving bulls have been sought to be banned in other States as well. Rekla races are conducted in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Kambala races are conducted in Karnataka and in Andhra Pradesh, wherein bulls are made to pull heavy stones to test how strong they are. Cockfights are also conducted in Andhra Pradesh for breeding purposes during Sankranthi, which are now sought to be banned.

“These games are similar to the Swayamvaram that happens in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, in which the woman chooses the eligible male,” Mr. Sivasenapati said and urged that the apex court consider allowing these games in the interest of conserving native species of animals and ensuring their demand in the cattle market.

Modern sensibility

With the rise of the urban English-speaking educated middle class, there has been an increasing desire to move away from sports that are perceived as backward and savage. To think of animals as having rights of their own and to be entitled to fair treatment is a rather evolved position, hence the dismissal of animal rights as an elite obsession.

The language in which animal rights activists phrase their arguments against Jallikattu reflects this modern sensibility that sees animals as being entitled to rights. A note, prepared by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and circulated to the press ahead of Pongal, contends that sports such as Jallikattu take advantage of bulls' natural nervousness as prey animals by deliberately placing them in a terrifying situation in which they’re forced to run away from those they perceive as a threat to their lives. Inspectors authorised by the statutory body, the Animal Welfare Board of India, have documented that bulls become so frightened by the menacing mob that they slip, fall, run into barriers and traffic, and even jump off cliffs, so desperate are they to escape. This often leads to severe injuries, including broken bones, and even death.

“The bulls’ natural desire is to run away from danger, not towards it. Because of this, participants twist and bite their tails; stab and jab them with sickles, spears, knives, and sticks; and cause them intense pain by yanking their nose ropes to force them to run towards the crowd. These reluctant bulls are then greeted by participants who punch, jump on, and drag them to the ground,” the PETA note observes.


It is doubtful if any of the practices shown in the PETA video reflects the ancient ritual of bull taming for domestication purposes in its original form. It’s clear that many of the documented practices such as poking and biting of the bulls do come across as unnecessary and for the sake of provoking the animal to run or fight, for the purpose of entertainment.

Culture is not static and traditions often have to be constantly reinvented in order to retain their sense of meaning and purpose. The same goes with practices such as Jallikattu that have lost its wider appeal, except among the rural folk, who receive an incentive for raising the bulls when the animal is in demand during the festive season.

A meaningful dialogue between cattle-rearers and animal-rights activists can ensue only when both sides listen to what the other party has to say without outrightly rejecting one another. Only through dialogue can measures to organise the bull-taming events without causing harm to the animal be devised. An outright ban risks putting the bulls out of demand as animals for sport, and farmers may simply end up selling them for slaughter.

As Sivasenapati suggests, just like how the Courts have set up a Lodha Committee to arbitrate on the BCCI matter, the courts could set up a committee wherein farmer’s groups, cattle-rearers and animal-rights groups could sit together to come up with a way to conduct the sport that is devoid of cruelty. This would help preserve the rural tradition dating back to ages, while ensuring that bulls do not suffer any injury during the sport.

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