For Muthal Subramanian, January is a joyful month. The harvest festival Pongal ushers in the Tamil new year, and she gets to watch her favourite sport―the bull-taming jallikattu.
Muthal, 69, is a smallholder in Sembanoor in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district. Every January, a week before Pongal festivities start, she starts touring farms where bulls are trained for jallikattu. “It is a pleasure watching the tamers chase bulls, hop on to them, and hold on for dear life,” she says. “I have not missed jallikattu even once, except when it was banned.”
Jallikattu was banned in 2014 by the Supreme Court, which said it violated the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Three years after the ban, Tamil Nadu brought in an ordinance, and later a bill, amending the act and allowing for the return of the sport. Petitions challenging the new law were soon filed in the Supreme Court, which formed a five-member Constitution Bench to hear the case. The bench reserved its judgment on December 8, 2022. It is expected to be delivered during this year’s jallikattu season, which lasts for four months in some parts of the state.
Excited about the season, Muthal has already taken stock of the competition in her village. “There are more than 200 bulls in this region alone,” she says.
Around 65km from Sembanoor, on the Sivaganga-Madurai highway, is a sprawling farm at Karumbukkaal in Varichiyur village. The farm is owned by P.R. Rajasekaran, president of the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Peravai, which has been fighting for jallikattu in courts. Rajasekaran owns a dozen bulls; two of them have fallen ill, but the rest are being trained for contests in Alanganallur, Avaniyapuram and Palamedu in Madurai district―the region’s three most popular jallikattu fixtures. They will be held on three days of Pongal festivities―January 15, 16 and 17.
“The bulls are trained for at least 40 days ahead of jallikattu,” says Rajasekaran. “They are like our children―greater than God for us.”
Two of the bulls, Appukutti and Sevalai, are ready for a long day’s work after having feasted on heaps of green grass while being tied to poles. They bellow as two attendees―Maari and Vishnu―untie them and make them walk. Appukutti leads; Sevalai follows.
“Hold Appu with care,” shouts Sundara Valli, the farm’s caretaker, to Maari as he pulls the long rope tied around the bull’s neck. Valli then turns to the bulls. “It is swimming time,” she says soothingly. “Be calm. Don’t bellow.”
Pacified, Appu follows Maari. The bull’s strides are swift and vigorous, like that of a horse. Two kilometres later, Appu sees a lake and lets out an excited cry. Sevalai soon joins him.
Sevalai is slightly taller. He is a Kangeyam cattle, a breed popular in the western part of the state; Appu is of Pulikulam breed, popular in the Madurai region and widely used in jallikattu.
Three indigenous breeds are preferred for jallikattu―Kangeyam, Pulikulam and Umblachery (popular in the state’s coastal plains). Enthusiasts breed bull calves or purchase them from local markets based on size, alertness and agility. The bulls are trained to swim, walk long distances and jump from the vaadivasal, the enclosure that serves as the cattle entry point in jallikattu.
Appu splashes into the lake, and water sprays out like a fountain. Vishnu and Maari hand over the rope to Veeranna Prakash aka Bavvu, who swims with the bull. “Santhoshama, Appu (are you happy now?)” asks Bavvu, as Appu swims across the lake.
Fifteen minutes later, Appu comes ashore, and Vishnu and Maari tie him to a tree. It is Sevalai’s turn to jump into the water. Unlike Appu, he does not make any noise as he eases into the water with his huge hump, thick neck, wide chest and long, curved horns. “Sevalai is ferocious, unlike the others,” says Vishnu. Bavvu swims with Sevalai for 15 minutes. Both of them come ashore, but Sevalai suddenly dives into the water again. “Dei sevalai podum da [Enough, man],” says Bavvu as he tugs at the rope.
Sevalai is pulled ashore again and the men take a coffee break. Later, the cattle are guided back to the farm. Every day, the bulls are made to walk at least 13km; every third day, they are taken for a swim to strengthen their hind legs.
Back in the farm, Appu, Sevalai and other bulls are given fodder―a mix of cotton seeds and corn and paddy residue. “We lower the carbohydrate content because it doesn’t add to the strength,” says Valli. Each bull is fed at least four kilos of protein-rich fodder.
Around 16km from Madurai is the Alanganallur Veterinary Hospital, where a hundred bulls wait in line for fitness certificates. One of them tries to run away and four people give it a chase. A young man named Azhagar finally succeeds in grabbing the rope and ties the bull to a tree. Azhagar is an assistant in a private bank in Madurai. At 29, he is an experienced bull tamer registered with the government.
“We are given tokens every year based on body fitness,” says Azhagar. “We undergo a complete health checkup before being given tokens. This year, too, I will get a token to participate in the Alanganallur event, my favourite jallikattu.”
There are scars on his neck, shoulder and forehead. “These are certificates of my valour,” says Azhagar. In the Madurai region, around 70 per cent of men between ages 35 and 45 regularly participate in the sport. “We get hurt sometimes, but the injuries heal in a day or two,” says Veeraiyyan, one of the men who helped Azhagar tame the wayward bull. “Many regulations have recently been brought in to ensure safety of the tamers and the bulls.”
The dangers, however, remain. In the first event of the jallikattu season, held in Pudukkottai district on January 8, around 500 tamers vied with each other to subdue 300 bulls in an open ground. More than 35 people, including spectators and police personnel, were injured.
At Alanganallur, government officials are taking measures to ensure all-round safety of man and animals. On January 6, Madurai district collector S. Anees Sekhar held a meeting with jallikattu organisers, bull owners and representatives of tamers to monitor preparations. “Every time, we check the medical condition of the bulls to ensure safety and prevent animal cruelty,” says Sekhar.
Jallikattu is both a religious and cultural event in rural Tamil Nadu. In Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Dindigul districts, the influence of the sport cuts across caste, faith and economic status. At least 78 per cent of bull rearers in southern Tamil Nadu are backward caste Hindus earning less than Rs1.5 lakh a year. The rest are backward Christian farmers who organise bull taming events in their villages.
The protests for and against jallikattu in recent years have made it a political hot button. Actor-politician Kamal Haasan, whose films like Thevar Magan and Virumandi celebrated the jallikattu culture, plans to seek approval from the state government to organise the sport in Chennai in partnership with Rajasekaran’s Jallikattu Peravai. “The craze for jallikattu across the globe has grown since 2017, particularly after the protests,” says Rajasekaran.
In the run-up to the 2021 assembly polls, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Madurai to watch jallikattu with DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin. “Jallikattu is safe for both bulls and bull tamers,” said Rahul. “The BJP is trying to suppress Tamil culture.”
Incidentally, it was in 2011, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, that Parliament passed an amendment that led to the jallikattu ban. In 2017, the DMK, which was part of the UPA government, extended full support to protesters who fought the ban. Now, having come to power in 2021, the DMK is planning to construct a stadium exclusively for the sport.
“Jallikattu is our pride. The DMK’s efforts restored the sport to its full spirit,” says Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, DMK leader and executive trustee of the Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation. Sivasenapathy was one of the faces of the pro-jallikattu protests in 2017.
In southern Tamil Nadu, jallikattu holds sway on electoral politics as well. Be it the DMK, the AIADMK or the Congress, political parties know that opposing jallikattu can dent their support base. J. Jayalalithaa, who was chief minister when the ban on jallikattu was in effect, had earned the wrath of pro-jallikattu protesters. The risk of losing the party’s strong vote bank in Madurai, Theni, Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai districts had prompted her party to fight for the lifting of the ban. “It was the AIADMK which brought back jallikattu,” said AIADMK leader R.B. Udhayakumar at a rally in Alanganallur in the run-up to the 2021 polls.
In an affidavit in the Supreme Court against the ban, the state government had said jallikattu was not just a “century-old practice symbolic of a community’s identity”, but “a tool for conserving precious, indigenous breeds of livestock” as well. A ban on the sport, said the government, was “hostile to culture and against the sensitivities of the community”.
The legal battle had begun when a public interest litigation was filed by A. Nagaraja, whose 12-year-old son was killed in 2004 after being hit by a bull that ran out of the arena. The Supreme Court delivered a judgment banning jallikattu in 2014. The amendment enabling the lifting of the ban was passed in 2017, after statewide protests in favour of the sport.
The court battle is now in its final stage: the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has reserved its verdict, and the ongoing jallikattu season could well be the final one.