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By the horns

India allows controversial bull-taming events to go ahead after protests

India allows controversial bull-taming events to go ahead after protests

A weeklong set of protests in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have ended on a violent note, but a victorious one too. An amendment to the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed Monday by the state government in order to allow Jallikattu to return.

Jallikattu, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, is the practise of releasing an angry bull into a crowd as people try to contain it. Those brave enough will jump on the animal, holding its horns as it tries to free itself.

Jallikattu was outlawed in 2014 by the Supreme Court after it was deemed to be cruel to the animals. But last week, Chennai’s iconic Marina beach had almost 15,000 people camped on its shores agitating for the ban to be overturned.

Large-scale demonstrations are not new in the state of Tamil Nadu. But while previous protests have been carefully orchestrated, the spontaneous outcry seen last week was purely driven by local people, many of whom were fiercely convinced that their political leaders had failed to fight for the right to hold Jallikattu.

Taking the bull by the horns

Jallikattu, derived from the Tamil words ‘salli kaasu’ (coins) and ‘kattu’ (a package tied on a bull’s horns), is a bull-taming sport played predominantly in the southern districts of the state, largely by the influential Thevar community.

During Thai Pongal, the four day harvest festival which also coincides with Tamil New Year, this largely agrarian based community plays the traditional sport, which involves jumping onto the back of a bull and holding onto it for a predetermined period of time.

Unlike their Hispanic counterparts the matadors, the bull is not attacked with a weapon or harmed (indeed the death of a bull is considered to be particularly unfortunate). Instead, the sport is linked to an idea of masculinity – of making a boy a man, and a man a “veeran” (warrior).

While aficionados claim that its origins stretch back 2,500 years ago thanks to references in Classical Tamil literature to “yeru thazhuvuthal” (literally, “bull embracing”), Jallikattu really emerged as a distinctive sport several hundred years ago, most predominantly in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu.

For the Thevars, to survive a Jallikattu bout means proving that you are a warrior, but it can come at a cost. At least two men died over the weekend after being gored to death by enraged bulls, in what were largely unregulated bouts hurriedly organized to appease angry demonstrators.

However these deaths are unlikely to act as a deterrent to future competitors. “This is a sport of warriors,” explained P Rajasekaran, President of the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Federation, unapologetically. “Of course it is risky. Any chance to prove your mettle is.”

The Supreme Court banned the sport in 2014, after PETA submitted evidence of animal neglect and cruelty following a year of government authorised investigations. In its concluding statement, India’s apex court had ruled that there was no way to conduct Jallikattu in a manner that wasn’t cruel to the bull.

Those who raise and compete with the bulls in question, however, disagree. “Jallikattu is linked to the welfare of the indigenous Kangayam breed,” says P Sakthivel, a herdsmen from Madurai district whose learned his trade from his father. Without Jallikattu, he argues, the Kangayam breed, identifiable by its one hump, would die out.

The truth is a little more difficult to ascertain. It’s clear that herders value and prize their bulls above everything else – ensuring they are fed even on days when there isn’t enough food for their families (and in Tamil Nadu, currently facing its worst drought in 140 years, those days are many). “We treat the bull like we would treat a family member,” says Rajasekaran. “It also is a warrior, remember.”

Jallikattu, as with so many traditions from another time, is a subculture that clashes, often painfully so, with ideas of modernity. Equating it to bullfighting is incorrect, while the breeding conservation argument is hyperbolic, and the notion that it’s a symbol of Tamil culture debatable. The truth can be found somewhere between the three.

Aditya Iyer is a journalist who reports on the politics and culture of Tamil Nadu.


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