Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Good Fight

Jallikattu, or ‘the taming of the bull’, was in the thick of controversy over reports of animal cruelty. PC VINOJ KUMAR went to see things for himself

IT IS the morning of January 17 and Alanganallur wears the look of a typical Tamil village during festival time, complete with makeshift sweet stalls, film music blaring out of loudspeakers, and vendors by the roadside, hawking plastic wares. Many have come here, some from hundreds of kilometres away, to see Jallikattu — the taming of the bull. A bull is let loose in a ring full of men who try and mount it. If someone manages to climb on to the charging beast and hang on till the finishing line, the bull has been “tamed”.

Jallikattu has been a part of Tamil culture for a very long time — references to it can be found in 2,000-year-old texts from the Sangam Age — but the event made headlines across India this year when the Supreme Court banned it because of charges of cruelty to bulls. The apex court relented and lifted the ban less than 48 hours before the event was to begin.

Most houses in Alanganallur have prepared a feast for their guests — who are either participants or spectators — and are only too happy to invite strangers over for a meal. The walls are plastered with posters — politicians welcoming “brave Tamils” who have come to watch Jallikattu or politicians being thanked for supporting the event. There are also posters paying tributes to local boy Senthil Kumar, who lost his life in the arena three years ago. “If the sun rises, light comes/If the moon rises, night sets in/When we think of our friend/we think of valour,” the verse on the poster proclaims. The lines sum up the spirit behind Jallikattu.

“We all know there is an element of danger. But Jallikattu is part of our culture. People in these parts take pride in playing the sport as our ancestors have done for centuries. The brave tradition has to continue, come what may,” says 23-year-old S. Ambaal, who was in the ring when his friend Senthil was gored to death. He grieves for him, but to not participate is out of question.

When the event starts at 11 am, Ambaal is in the ring in blue T-shirt and shorts, along with his teammates from the local ‘bull catchers’ club. There are about 50 men in the ring, aged 18-30 years. The T-shirt and shorts have become mandatory, as has the alcohol test. It is strictly enforced and as a result some veteran players have not entered the ring this year. “The alcohol tests have finished their career,” our guide tells us.

The district collector, senior police officials and animal welfare activists watch the proceedings from a special gallery. The spectator stands are packed; thousands outside have been denied entry and are clamouring to get in. A voice on the PA system announces that the games have begun and the first bull charges into the arena.

“Don’t try catching it, it’s the temple bull,” announces the commentator. The men make way for the bull, which charges down the 200-metre stretch in a wild sprint. The crowd is on its feet as the first competitive bull enters the ring, and the players close in on the animal. The PA system crackles to life again as the referee reminds them of the new rules. “Don’t pull the bull’s tail. You’ll be disqualified if you do.” A contestant manages to hang on to the bull’s hump till the 30-feet mark and is declared the winner. If more than one person hangs onto the bull, nobody gets the prize.

It is a display of sheer bravado as the men take on the bulls. One wrong move, one slip, could result in death. Watching Jallikattu definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat. The commentator keeps up the players’ and spectators’ enthusiasm. “Ithu super maadu. Palamedu maadu. Pudichu paar.” (This is the super bull from Palamedu. Catch it if you can.) Prizes, sponsored by politicians and local bigwigs, are announced for every bull that enters the ring — gold coins, cots, vessels. If the bull is not caught, the prize goes to the bull’s owner.

GARY JONES, a British journalist, has come to cover the event. Jones has visited many villages in the region to find out more about Jallikattu. “If the sport is banned, it should be banned because it is dangerous to humans. The bull is a tough animal,” he says. “People love their bulls and they love the sport. To take away Jallikattu from the Tamil people would be like taking away the Tamil male’s manhood.”

Eirwen Pierrot is a tourist from London who has watched bullfights in Spain. She feels comparisons between the two are misplaced. “In Spanish bullfights, the bulls get killed. It’s very cruel on the bulls,” she says. Phillipa Wall, who is visiting from Australia, feels Jallikattu is fine as long as the organisers make sure no one gets hurt. What she doesn’t like though is the lack of proper toilets.

We head to where the bulls are awaiting their turn to enter the ring. A team of veterinarians is examining them. “We don’t allow
weak and under-aged animals. Bulls with sharp horns and those who have been smeared with chilly powder or any other irritant are also turned away,” says Dr SS Senthil Kumar. So far they have disqualified about 20 bulls. A short distance away, ambulances are at hand to take the injured to hospitals.

Seventy-eight-year-old Murugesan Servai’s bull has not lost once in the last three years. “He is like a child when outside the arena. But inside the ring, he is a different creature. He has won about 30 events till date. The players don’t dare to touch Murugesan Servai’s bull,” he says. He spends about Rs 70 a day to feed the bull. Its diet includes maize stems, cottonseed, groundnut-oil cakes, paddy husk, rice and five eggs daily. “People are offering to buy it for Rs 70,000. But I have no plans to sell him. He is part of our family,” he says.

NOT ALL bulls are owned by the rich. Twenty-two-year-old R. Bharathi from nearby Aiyur is a daily wage earner who fulfilled his life’s ambition when he bought a young bull for Rs 10,000. “I want to train him to become a winner. People should shudder at the sight of my bull,” he says. He says he spends about Rs 30 per day on the bull. The bulls are picked from an ordinary breed that local farmers rear mainly for their dung. “These bulls are aggressive by nature. We pick small calves soon after they are weaned and train them,” says P. Rajasekaran, who owns five bulls. As part of their training, the bulls are tied to a wooden stump with a long rope and made to spar with effigies made of paddy.

There are few injuries this year and none seem serious. Dr V. Ellappan, a representative of the Animal Welfare Board, was watching the event and gave it a clean chit. “The sport was conducted in a fair manner. There was no cruelty,” he said. Greater supervision and extra precautions seem to have paid off. It seems that Jallikattu is here to stay.

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