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A ban on jallikattu by the Supreme Court since 2014 has been largely seen as a negation of Tamil identity. (All photos by J Suresh/ GRIST Media)

All eyes are on the narrow entry point through which bulls are let into the arena by their owners — Vaadi Vaasal. For men raring to tame the bull and the audiences waiting to catch a glimpse, the excitement is palpable. Even as the bulls are let into the arena, the crowds go berserk. In all likelihood, the bull might attack an innocuous bystander. Several of them try to stay away from the path the bull is likely to choose, yet come back to where they were standing before the next bull is let out. They can’t help themselves. That is Jallikattu or Eru Thazhuvuthal (literally, embrace the bull) for you. A sport that is as fearsome as it is addictive. A sport that has now become a rallying point for Tamil identity.A ban on jallikattu by the Supreme Court since 2014 has been largely seen as a negation of Tamil identity. This month, emotions are running high in the State — even in places where Jallikattu is not traditionally practised — as thousands of students skip classes to protest against the ban. Most of them are probably familiar with the sport only through Tamil cinema where a superstar takes on a ferocious bull and would later have an admiring woman fall in love with him.

MG Ramachandran has done it in Thaaikkupin thaaram (1956). Rajinikanth has famously done it in his 1980 film Murattu Kaalai (Rogue Bull) in which he is of course, the best Jallikattu player in the neighbourhood. More recently Kamal Haasan too tackles the bull in Virumaandi (2004), albeit for one scene — a scene that depicts that sport it in all its rustic racy glory. And true to ‘tradition’, him taming the bull helps him win the hand of its owner, Annalatchumi.
This month despite the outrage in Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court has declined to revisit the verdict before the festival of Pongal, but several groups are planning events in defiance of the Court.

Jallikattu has a history of over 2,500 years, say scholars. In ancient Tamil Nadu, the sport was played to win the hands of the bull owners’ daughters. A Bhoomiselvam, a Jallikattu bull-tamer-turned Tamil professor, says the Kalithogai (a classic Tamil poetic work) of Sangam literature has references to Jallikattu. “It speaks of how the animals are women’s best friends, in that they identify the right kind of partners for them. It talks elaborately about identifying the right kind of bull and training it.”

The ‘right kind of bull’ remains a preoccupation thousands of years later. A brand manager in a pharmaceutical company, Madurai-based B Prakash, owns seven Jallikattu bulls, which is how he’d like to identify himself. According to him, there is no one bull meant for the sport — he says there are several varieties, including the Kangeyam, Kizhakathi and Pulikulam, which are native breeds, named after their places of origin. Prakash adds that native breeds are friendly at home but violent on the field. “Kangeyam bulls are only used in jallikattu around Dindigul and beyond. In Madurai, Kizhakathi is more famous.”

Bhoomiselvam says, “The sport was meant to domesticate them enough for farming purposes.” The rationalization is that bulls are tamed during the sport, which makes them friendlier to the farmers and hence are more cooperative in farming.
The passion in 46-year-old Bhoomiselvam’s voice is unmistakable when he speaks about his association with the sport. “I belong to a family of farmers and Jallikattu was a natural part of our lives. I began to learn taming bulls when I was in my eighth standard and continued to do so till I turned 28. When I was 28, I sustained injuries in Jallikattu in my hands and leg. The sport requires enormous mental and physical energy. The accident left me physically drained. But I still love the sport, no matter what,” he says.

This kind of passion is shared by many people who rear bulls or tame them. G Jayakarthik, whose family is rooted in agriculture in Avaniyapuram, Madurai, belongs to both groups of aficionados. (Avaniyapuram along with Palamedu and Alanganallur are the three towns famous for Jallikattu.) “Rearing Jallikattu bulls has been a family tradition. For some reason, my father gave it up. I had always been a spectator in Jallikattu events and decided to do the rearing again. I sat with my grandfather and took all his help. I began with a calf nine years ago and I now own 10 bulls. I bought one last week for Rs 1,40,000. My friends kept saying that I should also try my hand at bull taming. So I learnt it, and just when I began to participate, the ban was announced,” he says grudgingly.

“There are families who’d starve but wouldn’t forget to feed their bulls. It is not just part of our tradition or culture. It is part of our lives.”

But Jayakarthik is hopeful. “I have known agricultural families who spend over 50% of their daily wages on the bulls. There are families who’d starve but wouldn’t forget to feed their bulls. It is not just part of our tradition or culture. It is part of our lives. We just cannot give it up”.

Prakash has a similar point to make. “I have been bringing them up for 16 years now and it has given me an identity. For us, jallikattu runs in our blood. My family has been doing it for generations now.”

Selvarani, 49, who belongs to a farming gamily in Madurai is probably among the very few women rearing Jallikattu bulls in Tamil Nadu. Even as I begin speaking to her, she hastily corrects me. “We don’t call them bulls. They are not animals. We call them by their names. I have about four of them and they are our kula deivam (the family deity). If the ban is lifted, I intend to take Ramu [Selvarani’s favourite bull] for Jallikattu.” she says. Selvarani cannot exactly remember when she began to rear bulls. “My family has always done it, so I grew up with them. The ones my parents had were like my brothers. It was only natural for me to continue this tradition.”
Among the hordes of men waiting at the Vaadi Vaasal to let their bulls out, Selvarani and her bulls make an arresting spectacle. “But I have never felt different as a woman at the Vaadi Vaasal. The men only respect me more. I am the one who lets Ramu or one of my other bulls into the arena. Because only I know them well. I understand them,” she grins.

Everyone in the world of Jallikattu have emotional relationships with their bulls. Jayakarthik talks about how he goes to them when he is feeling down. “They seem to understand me like no one else. I always tell my family that I want to die when I am with them.” For Prakash, bulls come before everything else. Every evening after work, he visits them before taking his dinner.

Despite his love for jallikattu, Bhoomiselvam would never again be part of it even as a spectator. “It hurts. It hurts when someone does it the wrong way. It makes me feel incapacitated. So I will never watch a jallikattu again in my life time. But I will never stop batting for the sport.”

But Bhoomiselvam does reluctantly admit that the sport carries casteist overtones.

“If a bull reared by a dominant caste person is tamed by a Dalit, it leads to a clash. Jallikattu is only an attempt by dominant castes to maintain their caste hegemonies,” says Uma Devi, Chennai-based writer and lyricist.

Madurai-based Stalin Rajangam, scholar of Dalit culture, concurs. “Men who rear the bulls and tame them are inevitably treated with respect. There are some customary rituals to show respect to them. Obviously, no Dalit will ever be respected that way. In fact, Dalits can never participate in Jallikattu. Even as spectators, they have to stand in a place earmarked for them” he says.
Naturally, these practices have made Dalit activists vehemently decry Jallikattu. Many activists say Jallikattu has led to caste clashes in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Rajangam gives two such examples: On January 17th 1983 in Palamedu, Dalit youth Kaaturaja of Manickampatti (a small hamlet nearby) was killed. On January 17th 1994, Errampatti cheri was ransacked after songs praising Ambedkar were aired. Both the incidents happened on the same day as Jallikattu.

Conventionally segregated as oorus (towns where dominant castes live) and cheris (slums where the Dalits live), Tamil Nadu’s villages have always upheld and nurtured the caste hegemony. Jallikattus are not an exception. Rajangam says many cheris have their own Jallikattu festivals but in a subdued way. In jallikattus in the towns, Dalits are often forced to do markedly less glamorous jobs like playing the melam (a percussion instrument) to set the tone, and take care of the bulls. “Since it’s a ‘sacred’ duty, they aren’t even paid for it. Of course, there are places like Alanganallur and Palamedu where Dalits participate, but exceptions never make rules,” says Rajangam.

Like Dalits, feminists too have a long-standing grouse against jallikattu as a sport, which asserts a violent masculinity. Except for rearing the bulls, women have little to do in the sport. “It has been so for a long time now. Women were generally not allowed to speak to their fiancés and they’d be allowed to assess the manliness of their fiancés only through Jallikattu,” Bhoomiselvam says.
Often, men who tame bulls do so at the risk of their lives to show their might. Divya Bharathi, a Madurai-based documentary filmmaker, says men consider it a matter of honour to tame the bull, even at the cost of sustaining injuries. “The gifts are so cheap that they can afford hundreds of it. Yet to them it is a matter of honour. Even sustaining injuries in Jallikattu is something to be proud of for them. It is this kind of sentiment associated with honour and masculinity that brings youth to the streets. Imagine, they don’t hit the streets for any real serious issue.” Ask her about her association with Jallikattu as a citizen of Madurai and Divya simply shrugs her shoulders. “What does it mean to me? Nothing at all.”

“Dalits are often employed to do services when dominant caste men celebrate Jallikattu. It happens with women too.”

“Masculinity and caste are somehow intrinsically linked. Both seek to subjugate women,” says Uma Devi. She feels as a sport that worships masculinity, Jallikattu subjugates women just as it subjugates Dalits. “Dalits are often employed to do services when dominant caste men celebrate Jallikattu. It happens with women too. I have studied Tamil, I teach Tamil and I write in Tamil. But I don’t accept the idea of Jallikattu being a symbol of Tamil culture.”

Uma Devi makes the argument that Jallikattu is celebrated as a symbol of Tamil culture only because it perpetuates the caste hegemony. “In a sharply divisive society as ours, caste plays a huge role in political victories. That is why Jallikattu is an issue and honour killing is not.”

And in the raucous lobbying for jallikattu as a symbol of an unbroken Tamil tradition and Tamilness, Devi throws up an argument that is bound to frighten even the bull.

“Sangam literature speaks of love too and more about love than of Jallikattu. Why do they think women who fall in love with men of other castes should be killed? Why do they think their honour is in the deaths of the lovers? Why don’t we yet accept love as a symbol of Tamil culture?” asks Uma.