Jallikkattu, more than just Jallikkattu
on Monday January 23rd, 2017, By Ajay Venkitaraman

(11 year old Sampath standing in front of his dad, who seems to be busy with something in his laptop)

Sam: Appa, umm, what is jajallikkattu?

Dad: (ignoring his question)

Sam: Appaaa…

Dad: Don’t you see I am busy creating, elaborating, discussing, incarcerating a report on increasing the GDP of our country in cognizance with the Freedom to Free Speech Act of 1932. (and thinking, I still possess that flair that helped me pass engineering)

Sam: OK. I understood what is jallikkattu. See you next year then.

Dad: Wait son. Check your mail in about 146 seconds.

Sam: I don’t have a mail ID, though.

Dad: What? How? I remember giving your mail ID in your birth certificate, oh wait, that was for your brother. I will mail you the link to create your own mail account.

Sam: Dad, how will you mail me when I don’t have a mail ID (now clearly disgusted with this conversation).

Dad: I meant I will ping you on WhatsApp. Kab bhaavna samjhoge beta?

Sam: (sighs to himself) Even I am trying to do that, kaash usko samjhe woh.

Dad: Good, I didn’t hear that. Create an account and ping me back.

(After 5 mins, mail pops up, “Here son, these two movies, Murattu Kaalai and Virumaandi consist the trove of everything I know about jallikkattu. See those scenes, and you can hit the bull’s-eye”).

(After 20 mins)

Sam: Dad, those movies confused me all the more now.

Dad: (clearly turning a deaf ear now)…  

You can’t blame Uncle Sam there. In the first movie, the hero is shown to be combating a ferocious bull (which is initially stationary) and trying to control it by the horn, for some bounty and of course, the antagonist’s sister, both of which he refuses (such swag!). And in the second movie, the bull is released from the bullpen (fair enough), but what ensues is a slew of people who chased the bull, poked it, bit its tail and in the end, brought it down together (as if it was a group effort). This was repeated for two more bulls. The bulls did gore a few people in both movies, which was expected. But a majority of the things shown were not according to the rules of the sport.

Raging Bull!

Jallikkattu started off as Eru Thazhuvuthal (embracing the bull) more than 2000 years ago. The logic behind this goes like this, ‘..before the harvest season, the cattle is left unbridled, so that they can graze and reproduce freely. But they need to be brought back; cows are docile, they don’t cause much trouble. But the bull can’t be tamed so easily, so the valiant men in the village were sent out to bring them back. And since this activity was fraught with danger, a bounty was announced for the successful person, which gave this the name Jallikkattu (a bag of coins), as a bag of coins tied to its horns had to be retrieved by the winner. With time, this activity became a part of the brave Tamil folklore, where the bull that gored many a man was seen as a symbol of power in the village, and the man who tamed the raging bulls is given a machismo stature.

 

As a sport, there were a few characteristics that separated it from the bullfighting seen in the Occidental. One is the breed of the bull: bos indicus bulls (Kangayam bull) is prepared for this, and the bulls that win are used as studs for breeding. The rules for the sport are technically used to make it a fair sporting event. Some of the rules are:

  • You can’t hold the bull by its horn, tail or neck. You can only hold it by its hump.
  • The tamer should embrace the bull 15 feet, marked by hanging overhead marker flags along the line.
  • Only one contestant should hold on to the bull at one time. If more than one contestant holds on to the bull, then there is no winner.

So, in the ideal scenario, bulls wouldn’t get hurt, in the worst case, only the tamer may get hurt or even die sometimes. But when was the last time we saw a Utopian world here?

 

To provoke the bull and enrage it all of a sudden, sometimes it is poked with a stick or hit with a cane. Sometimes even its tail is twisted and even liquor is force-fed for the purpose. And tamers resort to foul play like beating the bull, stabbing it, etc. Even those tamers aren’t spared as the bull’s horn sometimes tears up more than just human flesh. Trampling and death also takes place in many places, especially in places where open grounds are not available for the purpose. In some places, loss of property also ensues. All these are the reasons that animal welfare organizations put forward to ban this practice, calling it wrong on moral grounds and being cruel towards animals. In 2014, the Supreme Court banned the practice, citing animal welfare concerns. But events continued to be staged in different parts of Tamil Nadu, leading to arrests and small protests. In 2016, Government of India passed an order exempting Jallikattu from all performances where bulls can not be used, effectively reversing the ban. And this was again reversed by the Supreme Court thereby oscillating on the issue continuously. The current protests are a continuation of this, albeit on a really larger scale.

 

The apologists for this practice call forth Tamil traditions, culture and even religious grounds for supporting Jallikkattu. The bos indicus is one of the last surviving bull breeds in India, and this sport promotes the use of bos indicus for breeding. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which is calling for banning Jallikkattu has replied to this by saying that veterinarians can determine the virility of a bull with far more accuracy than this evil practice ever can.

 

Apart from these apparently straightforward reasons for taking sides on this issue, there seems to be a lot of underhand play involved, both for and against the issue. PETA has drawn criticism for its treatment of animals in its shelter, raising some people to call it a slaughterhouse and a euthanasia clinic. And in this particular issue the protesters championing Jallikkattu have cited PETA’s furtive interest in promoting foreign breed of bulls into the Indian market, and that Jersey cows will completely take over the Indian milk market. But PETA’s stance isn’t so obvious about the bull-fighting carried out in Spain and other such countries, where killing the bull is the climax of the event, and thus a sure death awaits the bull inside the ring. That said, this issue has also caused extremist groups, political parties to bask in reflected glory (BIRG) and also hide their shams behind this issue. Even though popular opinion supports Jallikkattu, many of the well-known protesters like film stars are under compulsion to conform or let themselves be exposed to the wrath of the people. A popular heroine who endorsed PETA faced severe backlash to the point that she had to escorted to her home by the police.

 

What really irks me though, is neither the issue nor the stand of both parties involved, but the sense of hypocrisy and double standards that is obvious with the issue. Meat eating is a contentious topic in most cultures and there are some that oppose it and some that don’t, but almost all of them impose some form of restriction on it based on hardbound rules or on the basis of kindness to all creatures. Traditionally, cattle is considered to be holy. Tamilians dedicate a day of the harvest festival as Mattu Pongal (literally Pongal for the Cattle).The rebellion of 1857 had an event based on the disrespect to cattle as its trigger. But today we rank 5th in beef production, 7th in its consumption and 1st in beef export. Shouldn’t champions against cruelty to animals take cognizance of this? I’m not a statistician, but I can say with certainty that more animals are killed to satiate our gustatory delights, than in Jallikkattu. Oh, did I forget the slaughter of cattle and other animals for leather? India ranks 3rd in that. So, is our ideology of animal cruelty limited to Jallikkattu? Or do we take a diplomatic stance in these areas because we can’t meddle with occupations that generate revenue for us? Because if saving animals is our main priority, then I feel, Jallikkattu should be placed in the fag end of the queue. If humans being killed is the bone of contention, then smoking, drinking, drunk and drive accidents seem more life threatening. The dangers faced by people working in the fireworks industry, in coal and other mines are far more pervasive than that faced by bull tamers. But wait, these practices generate revenue, right. I keep forgetting that. We won’t have an embargo on cigarettes or liquor, but we will definitely ask our cine superstars to stop drinking and smoking on-screen. These companies are not allowed to directly advertise their products. And we are presumed to be so naive that we do not know that ‘It’s your life, make it large’ and ‘The king of good times’ are slogans of alcoholic beverages. Apparently human and animal life is important, unless and until they don’t mess with our economy. After all, aren’t we all the Kangayam bulls of jallikkattu in a way, with a limiting bounty on our heads, beyond which we don’t have any value?

Ajay Venkitaraman

Specializing in cricket analysis, witticisms and engineering. Reading, writing and music occupy the majority of the right hemisphere of my brain. I blog here, https://iamanamateur.wordpress.com/

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