Jallikattu–Taming the Bulls in India

The Jaggernaut
The Jaggernaut

By Suruchi Dumpawar

The Juggernaut

A sea of humans swells and ebbs in Thammampatti, a small town near Salem in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.

There are people everywhere, easily tens of thousands; they flood the roads filling the narrow alleys, their eager faces gaze down from rooftops, they are perched precariously on bamboo scaffoldings to get a better look.

It’s time for Jallikattu, the ancient bull-taming sport of this part of India.

Man and bull stare at each other, eyes unblinking.
Man and bull stare at each other, eyes unblinking.

And then comes the juggernaut, the bull.

Festooned with gulal [colored powder], ribbons and garlands and moving its head agitatedly showing off the razor-sharp horns it tears past the mass of humans.

A hush engulfs the crowd and the excitement is palpable. The not-so-brave scamper to shelter themselves from the onslaught; the barricades are no match to the brute force of the beast. The alley, which looked jam-packed just one moment back, miraculously gives way.

The Brave and the Not-So-Brave

A few brave men venture forward; almost all of them are in high spirits, literally and figuratively speaking. The most audacious among them make an attempt for the bull’s hump, the not-so-daring make for its tail and the puniest among them are content to just touch the bull and beat it once.

Nagaland, Home of 
India’s Hornbill Festival

The scene gets repeated many times with myriad variations.

A muscular man who looks smug holding on to the bull’s tail is shaken off the next moment and falls violently on the ground; an anxious murmur rises from the crowd but the very next moment he is back on his feet looking smug again.

The bull corners a man and they stare at each other, eyes unblinking. The scene looks straight out of a typical Bollywood movie.

The crowd holds on to its breath, another man lunges for the bull from behind and the fellow in front runs for his life.

A man is shaken off violently at Jallikattu, the taming of the bulls.
A man is shaken off violently at Jallikattu, the taming of the bulls.

A bull is goring a group of men; it is black in color with its skin gleaming in the hot sun. Till now it has shaken off everyone who has tried to get on it. And suddenly without any warning another burly black bull crashes into the crowd.

A rather lanky fellow in shiny blue jersey and shorts holds on to the hump of the bull with a triumphant look on his face and the crowd goes giddy with joy.

Bull Taming, Indian Style

This is Jallikattu for you, an ancient bull-taming sport played in Tamil Nadu, India as a part of the celebrations of the harvest festival, Pongal. The ritual dates back 2000 years, in fact,  there are several rock paintings, at remote Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu that show men chasing bulls.

A particularly ferocious species of bull, the Kangeyam bull, is let out to rampage and taming it without any weapon whatsoever is taken as a mark of masculinity.

Tens of thousands come to watch the taming of the bulls in Tamil Nadu, India.
Tens of thousands come to watch the taming of the bulls in Tamil Nadu, India.

The man who holds on to the bull from the entrance of the bullpen to the marker can boast about it all year, and of course, he is entitled to the prizes like cash, watches, lungis [a garment worn around the waist], rice cookers and more.

But what am I doing here? Certainly not looking for potential husbands. Legend has it that in earlier days women used the game to choose their husbands.

The Electric Atmosphere

A youg spectator
A young spectator

I am standing delicately on a rooftop; I feel as if I don’t even have enough room to wink. I have my weapon in my hand, my new camera Canon Rebel XT on which dust has already started settling.

My fellow shutterbugs are somewhere around, lost in the throng, busy capturing the event through their lenses.

The sun is beating down on us relentlessly; the odor of sweat mingling with dry air is omnipresent. An ice candy man has found room in the street down amidst the commotion and he is selling orange candies.

I lust after these sweetmeats, but make do with water for now; I don’t want to lose this spot, which presents a good view of the alley below.

The commentator’s voice punctuates the already tense air; I don’t understand a thing, my knowledge of Tamil being limited to a few unmentionable expletives and movie songs. But my friends tell me later that the commentator announces the prize money attached to a particular bull, thus goading and enticing men to run for it.

And do the already charged men need any goading? They fall on the bull without any prompting.

You Just Need a Funny Bone

There are light moments, too, in the otherwise violent and charged atmosphere.

A man looking abashed is being pulled back home forcefully by his wife, who certainly doesn’t look amused by the idea of her husband taming the bull and in turn being gored by it.

A bull waits in the holding pen.
A bull waits in the holding pen

A silence falls over the crowd in expectance of the bull, but collective laughter rises from the crowd as the object of curiosity turns out to be a dog.

A local enthusiastically tells me that this happens only in Tamil Nadu. I want to tell him about the Spanish bullfights, but by now I’ve realized that Jallikattu is quite different.

Unlike the Spanish bullfights, Jallikattu does not end with the death of the bull. And moreover, I don’t want to puncture his enthusiasm so I nod at him smiling.

Horn, humps, tail -- different folks, different strokes
Horn, humps, tail — different folks, different strokes

Earlier in the day, we visited a bullpen. The bulls specially bred for Jallikattu are brought from districts near and far, some on foot and some hauled on small tempos.

Even when tied to a leash it takes at least two to three men to control a bull.

The balance in this sport is tilted in the bull’s favor if you consider the raw power of a bull against that of a single man. But when its one bull against the crowd the balance gets skewed and in Thammampatti I saw this happening quite often.

Surviving Jallikattu, Unscraped

But even when the throng is against the bull there are cases of injuries. This is not a place for the timid hearted, and bloodshed is commonplace here.

The Supreme Court of India had banned Jallikattu, but it revoked the ban under the condition that necessary precautions would be taken to prevent cruelty to animals and injuries to humans.

And precautions are taken in Thammampatti: an ambulance is doing rounds of the alleys, bulls are subjected to a round of screening before the event, and police personnel are posted all along the street though they are having a hard time controlling the staggering crowd.

The throng carries on enthusiastically till the last bull is brought out. The sun is all set to dip. The crowd, tired after a hard day, disperses.

The street vendors selling idli [a savory cake made of batter of fermented rice, black lentils, and fenugreek], vada [a doughnut-shaped South Indian delicacy made from lentils] and other South Indian delicacies are doing a brisk business.

We indulge in some yummy street food before we start back for Bangalore.

The next day as I read the newspapers, I find out that around 70 persons were injured in the Jallikattu in Thammampatti, much less than the count last year.

Given that there have been two hundred casualties in Jallikattu in the last decade, the Supreme Court ban though revoked seems to have made this sport a little safer at least.

I send a silent prayer to my Gods that my friends and I were unscraped through Jallikattu, a bizarre one at that!

Jallikattu was definitely an experience worth having.

Note: The Jallikattu held in Alanganallur near Madurai, usually on the 15th of January every year, is the largest, bloodiest and most popular. The other famous locations for Jallikattu are Tiruvapur, Thammampatti, and Palamedu.

Suruchi Dumpawar

Suruchi Dumpawar works as an Associate Consultant in a software firm in Bangalore, India. Trekking, photography, and writing are few of her interests and she sates them by going on trips around Bangalore and then writing about them. Visit her blog, Sur’s Pensieve.

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