Jallikattu Shame: In India, You Don’t Need To Understand A Tradition. You Can Get It Banned Anyway.

N Ganesan

Jan 14, 2017, 09:06 PM | Updated 09:06 PM IST

  • Jallikattu has a rich and storied past, not just in South India but in the northern part of the country as well.
  • Unfortunately, critics are being highly selective in their criticism against this ancient bull-taming sport.
  • A lot of dust has been raised, not by the bulls participating in Jallikattu, but by people who speak for and against this ancient sport. Those who speak in favour of the sport are more vociferous than those who support a ban. Rightly or wrongly, the many people in Tamil Nadu feel that their tradition, their culture are being destroyed.

    This sport, of taming wild bulls, has been there for centuries in some parts of South India, notably Madurai, Sivaganga, Dindigul and Pudukottai districts of Tamil Nadu.  What’s more, it may have been prevalent in ancient days in North India too. A seal belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation period, preserved in the National Museum in Delhi, shows a bull tossing a man, who was possibly trying to tame it. That is some evidence that some form of what is now called Jallikattu existed even 3,000 years ago.

    Additional evidence is available in the Sangam literature of Tamil Nadu where there are details of what was then known as Eru Thazhuvuthal, hugging the bulls. From the ancient poetic literature of the Sangam period, which dates back to many centuries before Christ, there are several references to bull-taming as a sport used to measure men's valour. The era when these poems were composed is known the Sangam period. The poems from this period number about 2,381 and are said to be composed by about 473 poets.

    It is obvious from the poems that money (salli) in small bags was tied (kattu) to the horn of a bull (Eru), and brave youth were required to hug (Thazhuvudhal) and hold on to the hump of the bull and untie the bag and take the money away as a prize. The sport which involved embracing the bull (Eru Thazhuvudhal ) was then known as Sallikattu. Over the years, it has come to be known as Jallikattu.

    Many of the 2,381 poems of the Sangam period describe the strength, breed and colour of the bulls that took part in the sport. They also provide a graphic description of the attitude of parents and how the girls teased one another. They show that the girls desired that the youth they were in love with would emerge victorious in embracing the bulls.

    Kuravaikooththu, a collection of folk songs sung by teenage girls, also has references to embracing the bull. Some songs urge the boyfriends to take part in embracing the bulls. Some others describe how the girls celebrated the victory of their lovers. Others depict how boys who succeeded in the sport were most sought-after by girls. Valour was much-admired.

    The 102nd verse from Mullaikali – Ezhunthana thugal Ettranar maarbu Kavizhthana maruppu  Kalanginar palar – describes a scene at a bull-taming contest, dust rising in the air, able physiques (of tamers), enraged bulls trying to conquer as well as excited and agitated spectators.

    Kollerru Koduanju Vaanai marumayum

    pullaalay Aayamagal

    The Kalithogai verse mentions that a girl would not marry a youth, even in his next birth, if he hesitated to hug a bull.

    In Silapathikaram, the Aayichiyar kuravai also gives a vivid description of the sport.

    Kaari kadhanajaan paaidhaanai

    Kaamuru miveri malar kodhai yaal

    netri segilai adaithar kuriya pottrodi maadhraalthol.

    In the fifth volume of his book Castes & Tribes of Southern India, Edgar Thurston has written that it was a game worthy of bold and free people. It was regrettable that certain Collectors (District Magistrates) should have discouraged it under the idea that it was somewhat dangerous. He has written that an enraged bull lowered its head and charged at the people. But when a man dropped on the sand, the bull leapt over his body instead of goring him. He has pointed out that the bulls never trampled on the people lying down. If any one was hurt, it was because he was not vigilant. That was not too often.

    It must also be pointed out that rarely were the participating bulls injured or harmed in any way, unlike in Spain, Portugal and Mexico, where the bulls are ultimately killed. In those countries, it is considered an art form and a highly ritualised cultural event which is deeply tied to Spanish culture and identity. Matador, the principal performer, thrusts a sword between the shoulder blades of the bull and kills it. In Jallikattu, no harm is done to the bull.

    Besides being a sport, Jallikattu also has a bearing on the local economy. Bulls are reared from the time they are calves. Virile bulls are in great demand as they are used to sire calves. “While land is our immovable property, bulls are our movable property,” declare some farmers. Some of the bulls that take part in Jallikattu fetch as much as Rs 2 lakh. There would be no incentive to rear bulls if Jallikattu was banned, declare farmers.

    It is to be noted that only native bulls are allowed to participate in Jallikattu. There are five native breeds now. A sixth, known as Alambadi, has become extinct. There were more than 1.1 million Kangeyam bulls at one time. They have now come down to just 15,000. It is these bulls that are extensively used in Jallikattu. If they are not allowed to participate in the sport, the locals fear that not only the famed Kangeyam bulls but also the other breeds may become extinct.

    There was a time when bulls were extensively used in agriculture. They were essential for ploughing the fields and for drawing the carts. With mechanised agriculture, where tractors are used, there is little use for the bulls. If the ban is not revoked, farmers may not raise local livestock. They point out that when the stress is on conserving electric and fossil energy, animal energy would be useful, as in yesteryears.

    People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the main opponent of Jallikattu, claims to operate “under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment, while educating policymakers and the public about animal abuse and promoting an understanding of the right of all animals to be treated with respect.”

    A supporter of Jallikattu asks why PETA is concerned only with animals. He wants it to extend its principle to include birds also. He points out that every day several lakhs of chicken are transported in cages in which they cannot even stand.

    When animals are “not ours to eat,” has PETA done anything to prevent the slaughter of cows, bulls, goats and sheep, not only in India but also in foreign countries? No wonder film actor Kamal Haasan says people should stop eating biryani.

    “The lives of lakhs of animals are being extinguished every day to feed the people. PETA and the Supreme Court are keeping quiet, while they seem very concerned about a few bulls,” says one of those demanding that the ban on Jallikattu be revoked.

    Another supporter says that in horse racing, the horses are goaded with electric whips. There have been occasions when a horse, while running, has stumbled and broken a leg, only to be put to sleep later. “Why is PETA not bothered about it?” asks another supporter of Jallikattu.

    The Hyderabad-based N Ganesan is a senior journalist who retired fromThe Hindu nearly three decades ago and is recognised as one of the champions of consumers’ rights.

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