Among the slew of celebrations connected with the four-day Pongal festivities, jallikattu (bull-taming) is an event that draws huge crowds every year in the southern districts of Madurai, Pudukottai, Theni, Thanjavur, Salem and Sivaganga. However, this year a question mark hangs over the conduct of the sport, whose history goes back to the Sangam Period, as animal rights activists who have been pushing for a ban on jallikattu for many years now persist in their efforts.
The latest bid to ensure a ban came from Bollywood actor John Abraham who, on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, wrote to the Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan urging her to not allow the conduct of jallikattu this year. In 2011, the Union Environment Ministry issued a notification that banned the use of bulls as performing animals soon after actor Hema Malini, at the behest of PETA, wrote a letter seeking to outlaw the sport.
Since PETA and a host of other organisations and activists started campaigning against the sport, taking the matter to court several times, stating that bull taming involved cruelty to animals, uncertainty has prevailed over the conduct of jallikattu events. With the Supreme Court taking note of the concerns expressed by the animal lovers, jallikattu events have been held with restrictions as per the guidelines laid out by the court from 2009.
This year, apart from the fact that some organisers of jallikattu events in Madurai have approached the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, challenging the ban by the Environment Ministry, the Tamil Nadu government has given permission for events in various places and preparations have started in right earnest. Still, with the court yet to give its verdict on the case, supporters of the sport are keeping their fingers crossed.
So, why are animal rights activists opposed to the traditional sport and what do the supporters of the sport have to say in favour of it?
According to PETA, jallikattu is a cruel sport in which terrified bulls are kicked, punched, jumped on, dragged to the ground and otherwise tormented. After conducting investigations at many jallikattu events, PETA documented that bulls were tied so tightly that they were in severe discomfort and pain, that they were beaten with fists, that they had their tails twisted and pulled, that they were jumped on and that they were wrestled to the ground.
Those opposed to jallikattu have also pointed out at the number of people injured both inside the ring and in the visitors galleries to drive home the point that it is a dangerous sport. They also allege that cruel practices such as rubbing chilli powder in the anus of the animals to infuriate them and feeding them alcohol to make them aggressive in the arena persist. In short it is seen as a barbaric sport that torments the bulls and puts the life and limbs of people in danger.
But people who are keen that the hoary tradition should be allowed to continue have a lot to say in justifying their demand for the conduct of the jallikattu events that have also become a major tourist attraction of late.
One thing that the sport’s supporters point out is that in jallikattu the bull is not harmed or killed as the participants do not use any weapons, unlike bull-fighting in Spain, where the matadors kill the charging bulls. In the bull taming arena of Tamil Nadu, if any blood is spilled, it is that of humans and not animals, they claim.
But the most important thing is that jallikattu is intertwined with Tamil culture. Though it is not in vogue all over the state, in those places where it is held, it is associated with temples. In many temples the annual festival cannot be started without the bull taming event. In fact, it was held not just during the Pongal season but at other times in some places. However, now the Supreme Court has restricted the conduct of the event to a few months of the year.
The most important events are held in villages around Madurai during the Pongal season, starting with the one at Palamedu, a village located near Madurai on the day of ‘Mattu Pongal’. The next day the now world famous “Alanganallur jallikattu” takes place in the village of Alanganallur near Madurai.
That bull taming is an ancient sport in Tamil Nadu has been affirmed by the discovery of paintings on rock surfaces or caves. There are several rock paintings, more than 3,500 years old, at the remote Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris that show men chasing bulls with big humps and long and straight horns.
Since experts have dated the paintings between 2000 BC to 1500 BC, it is clear that ancient Tamils celebrated the sport. In the later years, the sport became so integral to the local culture of the villages that the youth looked forward to it every year as it gave them an opportunity to show off their bravery and strength. In fact, Tamil literature suggests that the champions of jallikattu often swon the hearts of women.
It is in that tradition that the people see it as a matter of pride to conduct these events in their villages. They rear the bulls on a special diet, giving them exercise and training, preparing them for D-day. The youth, too, keep themselves fit to prove their valour and prowess. To put it simply, the villagers look forward to the annual jallikattu.
So, in 2008 when the Supreme Court disallowed the organisation of jallikattur for the first time, spontaneous protests broke out in several villages like Alanganallur, Palamedu and Siravayal in Sivaganga district. The ordinary villagers were aghast at the idea of their tradition being taken away by the long arm of law.
What the villagers feared was that they would invite divine wrath if they did not hold the event. They were also worried about their youth going astray without the motivation to take part in the annual bull taming event and impress the villagers, particularly the young women.
For the people belonging to subaltern communities in the remote rural areas, the deaths during the event were inevitable. Surviving in the neglected hinterlands with no medical facilities and opportunities for decent livelihood, their lives were so tough they felt the sport was part of their life.
Many villagers could not bear the charge that they were cruel to the bulls. They claimed that some rich local zamidars had, of late, converted jallikattu into a gallery sport, giving room for violations with a view to turning the animals aggressive. But in general, as pastoral people, they claimed, that they treated the animals like their children and brought them up with care. It was more so in the case of bulls earmarked for the jallikattu.
In the past few years, after the Supreme Court intervened, veterinarians are posted at the venues to check the animals and find out if they are drugged or abused with chilli powder. Even spectator galleries are erected to ensure that the charging bulls do not harm onlookers, as had happened in the past.