When a Tamil youth embraces the bull unleashed in jallikattu, he relives a Harappan-Vedic ritual. We need to rediscover this connection in the animal’s veneration during Makar Sankranti.
Among the seals of the Harappan civilisation, the seal second only to the famous ‘unicorn’ is that of the bull. A majority of these were zebu (humped cattle or Bos indicus). However, short-horned humpless bulls (Bos taurus), too, have been found on the seals. Either it is the Bos taurus or the gaur, the Indian bison.
The Harappan civilisation, which dates beyond the fourth millennium, and whose geographic extent is expanding with every new archaeological discovery, had accorded a special place to the bull in its economic, cultural and religious life. Bull, in both the archaeological context of Harappa and the Vedic literary contexts, has astronomical symbolism. Vedic texts have been cited by almost all Indologists (irrespective of which side of the invasion-migration fence they stand) in their study of the Harappan culture and spirituality.
Indologist Asko Parpola says that in the other ancient cultures of that time, both in Mesopotamia and Egypt, bulls and cows were symbolised as ‘bull of heaven’ and ‘cow-lady of heaven’. Such celestial bulls and cows were adorned with trefoil motifs. In the excavations from Mohenjo Daro, a fragmentary steatite bull embellished with trefoils has been obtained.
The trefoil patterns also appear on the cloak worn by the famous ‘priest-king’. Again, Parpola points out that the Vedic texts describe tarpya garment as the “garment to the divine king Varuna, who is associated with the night sky, and state that it had images of sacrificial fireplaces (dhisnya) sewn onto it”. Of course, according to him, Vedic hymns got all these from the Harappans. (Parpola’sThe Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, 2015).
However, the astro-symbolism of the bull as ‘bull of heaven’ is also attested clearly in Rig Veda, which calls Indra by that name. Professor Ernest G McClain, who studied the ancient texts, particularly the Vedas, deciphering mathematical harmonics in them, explains the importance of the term ‘bull of the heaven’ as the vernal sun rose in Taurus (the bull) between 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE, when “the earliest poems conceived, but it shifted to Aries (the ram) before the Rig Veda was completed”. So, “Indra, leader of the gods, is the ‘bull of heaven’ in many poems and the ‘ram’ in others”.
Further, between 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE, McClain says “as the equinoctial sun rose in Taurus, the bull, its horns form a triangle in the sky”. The Vedic calendar divided seasons into six, and Vedic texts speak of “the six expanses — from which no single creature is excluded”. The six directions, through a hexagon, create three pairs of reciprocals. Further, Agni-Indra is “the steer with triple horn, the life-bestower”. Through this symbolism and imagery, McClain explains a verse, speaks of Varuna as the one on whom “the three heavens rest and are supported, and the three earths are there in six-fold order”. (McClain, The Myth of Invariance, 1976).
Parpola also relates the six directions pointed out by “the Atharvaveda several times” with the royal robe of Varuna and also with “the trefoil-ornamented sky garment” of the Harappan “priest-king”. (Parpola, Beginnings of Indian Astronomy with Reference to a Parallel Development in China, 2013). Rig Veda speaks of Indra as the bull who “sustains the heavens, earth and middle realm and also the six directions”.
The bull has been a symbol for various Vedic deities, each representing the supreme divine in the songs of the seer. The importance of bull to Vedic spirituality is revealed in the vedic hymn, which addresses each of “Soma-pressing stone”, “ecstasy”, “outflowing Soma”, as a bull, and Indra as the “bull of bulls”.
The Vedic divine bull transcends gender barriers. It is androgynous in nature, which forms a key element in later Hindu imagery also. As viswarupa, the bull has “three udders”, “three bellies” and “three faces”. Parjanya, the rain, is identified with Indra by Vedic seers with an androgynous quality, thus entering the bull imagery. “The honey flowing from his udder” and he is “the bull who nourishes his calf the germ of plants”; he is also “the bull who inseminates everything and is the soul of all that moves and stands”.
Thus, it is no wonder, that the bull becomes the symbol of dharma as well as Vishnu.
The bull’s connection with astronomical and spiritual symbolism in the Harappan culture and Vedic literature may explain the bull-taming ritual that is prevalent in south India even today, which is also well attested in the ancient Tamil Sangam literature. With the Harappan seals showing many human figurines trying to tame buffalo bulls and jumping over the charging bovine, the connection is not hard to draw.
It is during Makar Sankranti, which is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, that the bull-taming sport jallikattu and Rekhla-race or bullock-cart race, are conducted. That the bull in Vedic-Harappan imagery is connected with both astronomical symbolism, old calendar new year and rains become central to these sports, is definitely not a coincidence.
Rig Veda speaks of how Mudgalani, a woman won “a car-load worth a thousand” in a chariot race. The chariot was drawn by a bull. During the race, the bull was encouraged “by the goad”, and the bull was “bound to the pole by the yoke's thong of leather”. The hymn-verses end with praise for Indra, as the “bull who drivest with thy bull” winning the race together.
Today, it is in south India, that these festivals are conducted during Makar Sankranti. The Vedic importance to bull symbolism, which itself should have evolved from the rural pastoral settings of ancient India, has organic linkages to the later developments in Indian society. Sangam literature sings of the valour of the youths of the pastoral eco-cultural landscape (thinai) called Mullai. Vishnu is the presiding deity of this zone.
Youngsters could win the hearts of their beloved — only by taming the bulls. Also, Tamil devotional hymns speak of how Krishna won the hand of Nappinai by taming seven bulls. Srimad Bhagavata Purana also speaks of Krishna taming seven bulls to win the hand of Nagnajiti Satya, the princess of Kosala kingdom. These seven bulls had their nose unpierced, says the Purana. Even today, in Tamil Nadu, a fierce but tamed bull is identified by the presence of the nose rope. If such a bull becomes wild again, the nose rope is used to restrain it. If the wild bulls were unpierced, then that means they were untamed.
Jallikattu is not just a sport, but an integrated system with the local agro-eco web. Balakumar Somu, an animal rights activist from Coimbatore, runs a website called Jallikattu.in and has been at the forefront of the movement to save the sport. In his 2015 interview to Swarajya, he said that jallikattu bulls are actually a part of the village commons — also referred to as the temple bulls, which are fed by the entire village, and are used for impregnating cows of that village alone.
Jallikattu is an important sport that’s held to honour those who raise the bulls and to demonstrate the strength of the animals. He further pointed out that the jallikattu belt of Tamil Nadu consists of 18 districts — a single large area where the six indigenous native breeds thrive to this day.
During the colonial period, the Aryan-Dravidian binary was constructed by colonial Indologists and was perpetuated. Dravidianists wanted a completely separate new year, which was closer to the new year calendar of the ruling British, than to the traditional pan-Indic new year. So, they zeroed in on Pongal, the Tamil form of Makar Sankranti — the harvest festival when prayers are offered to the sun god and declared that it was the original Tamil new year. Since then, whenever the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was in power, they 'officially' change the Tamil new year to Pongal. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam reverts it to the traditional Tamil new year.
Jallikattu and related bull festivals, thus, became the Dravidian pride sports. Based on a petition by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Supreme Court banned these sports in an insensitive manner with the support of ministers like Jairam Ramesh of the United Progressive Alliance government. This was opposed by village chiefs in Tamil Nadu. Later, the National Democratic Alliance government, in a bid to restore the sport, took efforts to remove the ban, but which were delayed by legal hurdles created by PETA.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, the blame was shifted to ‘Hindutva-Aryan’ conspiracy by an assorted group of Dravidianists and Tamil separatists, and a huge emotionally-charged movement was launched at Chennai’s Marina Beach. Radical Marxists, who had opposed the Hindu movement’s efforts earlier to get the ban removed, calling jallikattu as a ‘feudal barbaric sport’ in their website, and Islamic radicals, who had opposed the sport as a ‘barbaric event’ that belonged to the darkness of non-Islamic paganism, joined the Marina protest.
Simultaneously, Christian evangelical ‘machinery of appropriation’ also started taking over jallikattu. The bulls of jallikattu are considered to emanate the divinity of village deities. In a few villages, the Church started replacing the village deities. While in Hindu tradition, the deity was ultimately identified with the Brahman itself, in the case of a Catholic church, the bull was associated with the cults of spiritual middlemen or saints, like St Antony. At the root of both — hate politics and evangelical appropriation — is the propagandised axiomatic view, that Pongal marks a separate Tamil new year.
Professor Subash Kak points out that actually, in Hindu systems, there were two-year cycles. “The ritual one started with the winter solstice (mahavrata day), and the civil one started with the spring equinox (visuva).” He also points out that according to Kausitaki Brahmana, the year-long sacrifices began with the winter solstice. This clearly shows how annual events like jallikattu in Tamil Nadu have been passed down to us from time immemorial.
Narrow-minded animal rights activists aping their Western counterparts as well as the Dravidianists, whose only love for tradition is to cut it off from its life source, fail to understand the grandeur in this view of life — historical, cultural and spiritual. When a Tamil youth embraces the bull unleashed, he is effectively re-enacting a ritual that belongs to the Harappan-Vedic times, with all its cultural-spiritual connotations, unconsciously.
It is time we rediscover this connection and ancient roots and reinstate it in the conscience of the people. Jallikattu and the bulls need to be saved from both shallow bans of activism and appropriations by monopolistic expansionism, as both go against the principles of bio-diversity and theodiversity — the basis of bull veneration during Makar Sankranti.