Rapoosal in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukottai district ought to have been in mourning. Instead, it is wallowing in pride after three people died in the village in a Jallikattu bout. The event was held on Sunday after unprecedented protests forced the government to rescind an earlier order banning the bull sport that has come to be equated with Tamil identity.
“Jallikattu is a sport of warriors,” asserted P Sengottiyan, the leader of the Jallikattu players of the village, around 400 km south of Chennai. “None of the villagers who died was from Rapoosal. Two of them drank liquor and tried to play; that is why they died. The one person who played the sport skillfully died as a warrior and we are proud of him,” he added.
As drought-hit as any other village in the state and dealing with dried up riverbeds and barren fields, Rapoosal residents are not squeamish about the blood that flowed on their ground.
Sunday’s Jallikattu was special. Tamil Nadu health minister Vijayabhaskar is from Rapoosal and “helped organise” the event. Once the bulls ran, the situation quickly got out of hand. Mohan from Latchampatti, Raju from Udukoor, and Karupaiyya from Kalathipatti were gored to death and at least 51 people were injured.
“There were 500 policemen, but they couldn’t control the crowd,” said farmer R Nehru, 52. “There were 165 bulls, but a huge crowd of people — maybe a lakh.” Nehru added the Jallikattu bout was funded, organised, and promoted by the minister, not the village.
“We will hold our village bout in celebration of the Jallikattu law in March,” Nehru said, waving towards an otherwise unremarkable stretch of sub-baked turf where the event took place. The ground was littered with empty water pouches and the occasional broken chappal.
Despite attempts, health minister Vijayabhaskar could not be reached for comment. His office indicated he was busy in Pudukottai, arranging for aid to reach the families of the three victims.
For Rapoosal villagers, Jallikattu is their only festival and they fiercely maintain that the danger of the sport does not mean it should be banned.
“My village is famous. I can’t tell you how long Jallikattu has been held here. My father and my father’s father and his father all played the sport,” said P Jairaj, a 23-year-old engineer. The Rapoosal native works in Chennai and was a part of the week-long pro-Jallikattu protests in the state capital.
Sengottiyan, the leader of Rapoosal’s Jallikattu players, said, “I faced the bull for the first time when I was in 6th standard.” Now 29 years old, the farmer proudly pointed to numerous scars.
The inherent danger of the sport is precisely why it is a test of one’s masculinity, according to villagers. But they maintain that rules are enforced when Jallikattu events are conducted. What about January 22, when rules flew out of the window?
“If you follow speed rules and drive at 50 or 60 kmph, then you’ll be safe, right?” asked Sengottiyan, pointing at dried blood on his bike from Sunday’s event. “That’s how Jallikattu is. It is dangerous, but if you follow the rules, at most you’ll be injured, not killed.”
It’s clear that the people here take pride in the native Kangayam bulls raised to compete in the bouts.
“Cruelty to the animal? PETA clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” scoffed S Prakash, an 18-year-old herder whose bull competed in its first Jallikattu event on Sunday. “Our native bulls are true warriors; we’re the ones in danger,” he laughed, adding that the sport was the only way the native breed could survive.
“Foreign cows produce more milk than our breeds, but they need more care and attention,” he said. “Our cows can stay in the blazing heat for a whole day and survive on a single drink of water; that is why competing with them is an honour.”
Taking the bull by the horns
There isn’t uniform support for the sport, however. In Kalathipatti village, 10km away from Rapoosal, the mood is sombre. The village is in collective mourning for P Karupaiyya, 27, who was among the three men who died. He was a computer engineer.
“My son is dead,” said his father, Panneerselvam. “Who cares about Jallikattu?” The 60-year-old farmer angrily denied that his son drank liquor and fought in the bout. “He was curious. He had never seen a Jallikattu event before, so he went with the crowd to see it.”
For the villagers here, and in Udukkoor and Latchamapatti villages, there are no particularly strong feelings either for or against the sport.
“Does it really matter what we say?” asked Karupaiyya’s uncle, Ramaiyya. “Jallikattu will be held now for good, and more men will die. And we will not get justice for my nephew.”
Many villagers were reluctant to speak about what happened on Sunday, afraid of potential repercussions. “This constituency belongs to a government minister,” said a villager who did not wish to be named. “He is a powerful man. There’s no point in us fighting what happened.”
Soundala, Karupaiyya’s aunt, is more vocal. “He died at 5am on Monday and the police informed us at night,” she said bitterly. “If we try to register a case, the police will just record someone’s else’s bull (as responsible) and the case will never end. We are powerless.”
According to the rules of the sport, all bulls that are used for Jallikattu events must have a registration number that is linked to an owner in theory.
In practice, it becomes more difficult to locate those involved in deaths, even without alleged police interference.
Back at Rapoosal, there was some confusion over where the bull which injured the three men was from, before one villager confidently stated, “Trichy!”
“Namma veedu maada? Paravaillai (It was a bull from our area? Not bad),” said Sengottiyan, impressed.