CHENNAI: Under January 2017’s clear blue skies, a sea of people — both young and old — clad in black attire had gathered alongside the shore of Marina, raising slogans and protesting against the Supreme Court’s order to ban Jallikattu — the state’s traditional bull-taming sport held during the Pongal festival.
Around 160 kilometres away from the city, in the fringes of Vellore city at Sholavaram village, Jaiprakash, a bull trainer and tamer, and his ilk, staged a peaceful protest in solidarity with the lakhs of demonstrators from across the world. “I grew up on a farm surrounded by cows and bulls.
While the world has several festivals to celebrate and look forward to, for us, Pongal and the Eruthu vidum vizha (bull race) are the most important. We wait for 360-odd days to celebrate this one day. So when this ban was imposed, we were all quite distressed. We had to give away our bulls, the ones we nurtured for years and had to almost let go of a centuries- old legacy,” narrates Jai.
However, today, the 37-year-old former networking engineer is a happy man. In the aftermath of the protest, when the ban was lifted and the sport legalised, his 16-member family was joined by Rajini, Sevalai, Paayum Puli, and seven other four-legged friends. “The bulls are a part of the family.
Everyone — from the senior citizens to the toddlers in the house — takes care of them and in return, the bulls care for them. They might look menacing with sharp horns and humps but they are loving too,” shares the trainer, popularly known as JPR in the circuit. With Pongal and the bull race, just a few days away, Jai has been busy gearing up for the festival.
Getting race ready On the banks of the Sholavaram lake, Sevalai and Puli swim for around 10 minutes, increasing their strength and stamina for the big day, while Rajini and Kulla Karuppu dig their horns into the wet earth. “It’s an intensive process and this training usually begins in December. We then ensure they are fed nutrition-rich food. This is what makes them fast and agile,” explains Jai, who has been a trainer for over two decades. “The knowledge and tradition are passed from one person to another.
We are exposed to it from a very young age. I have seen my father train the bulls. He learned it from his father. It all began several centuries ago and it’s in our blood,” he beams. While the southern districts of Tamil Nadu more popularly conduct Jallikattu, a bull-taming event with pomp, Jai elucidates that in northern Tamil Nadu, including places like Vellore, Tirupattur and Ranipet districts, the bull race draws more interest and participation.
Three years after the Jallikattu protest, often dubbed as Thai puratchi, the curiosity among youngsters to learn and be part of the sport has only increased, it seems. “More people want to be part of it. This year, we will have people from different districts and over 1,000 bulls take part in the event. Each bull will have to run 100 metres, and the one that covers the distance in the least time will be declared the champion. Adhu oru gethu! This will also increase the value of the bull. Over the years, the price of procuring bulls has increased...some even buying the cattle for Rs 20 lakh,” he details.
But, there are a few kalais like Karuppu that Jai cannot part with, he says. “Karuppu has been with us for 12 years now. He loves entering the house and being around people. If he falls ill, I get deeply affected. I immediately rush him to the hospital and ensure he is doing well. It’s funny how the world thinks that we are insensitive and cruel to animals.
We care more deeply for them than anyone. They are our life. Otherwise, why would we nurture these bulls throughout the year, for just this one day? Our ancestors have always lived without any human-animal conflict and we come from that school of thought. Even if we fail to eat, we feed them,” he shares, pointing to how the lockdown turned into a nightmare for those like Jai.With close to no income, several bull owners had to manage family expenses while procuring cattle feed at high rates.
Many were pushed to the edge of not being able to buy even the basic vaikol (paddy straws) for the cattle. “It was a hard time for many. There was no money nor energy. But we managed to tide through. In the last three months, we have ensured to give them the needed theevanam (cattle feed) Sometimes, we even feed them naatu paal (country milk) to give them strength. The bulls are now ready to race!” he enthuses.
Revelry with restrictions
This year, amid the pandemic, the event will be conducted as per the government’s directive in 200-odd streets across Vellore, Ranipet and Tirupattur. With barricades to protect spectators, social distancing protocols, the mandate of medical check-up for bulls and COVID test for the persons who will be accompanying the bulls, organisers of the event and trainers have their job cut out.
“The numbers of spectators and participants have been restricted. COVID negative certificates for players are compulsory too. We are working round the clock to ensure that we successfully conduct the event,” he says. Over centuries, the sport, which has been practised since the Sangam period, has gone through several trials and tribulations. Yet, for thousands like Jai and their families, their tryst with the sport continues. “It’ll never cease to stop. We will take it forward like our ancestors did,” he notes.