Come Pongal (harvest festival) celebrations in Tamil Nadu which extends to about a week, literally deadly dust gets thrown up as hundreds of male youths display their prowess at ‘Jallikattu’ (bull-taming), sometimes even to win the hands of a handsome bride, and lots of other prizes of course. This all-men’s game testing their virility is now highly sanitized, but its spirit is going strong.
This year after the first three days at the three most known venues near the Temple city of Madurai, about 450 km South of Chennai, where ‘Jallikattu’ has been traditionally held for centuries-, Alanganallur, the biggest and most sought after hotspot by tourists, Palamedu and Avaniyapuram-, serious matadors’ casualty has been minimal.
This is mainly due to the Madurai District Administration taking great care to implement the norms laid down by the Supreme Court last year, after an attempt to ban this rustic rural sport in Tamil Nadu had kicked up mass protests on cultural grounds, notwithstanding the clamour by the friends of the animals to proscribe it.
Yet, for the ‘Jallikattu’ events that ended till Friday including in other parts of Tamil Nadu like in Tiruchirappalli and Pudukottai districts, the official death toll so far is five men who were gored to death when they attempted to tame bulls at different places.
Youths injured in these events have so far exceeded 200 this year in all these places, including 70 persons at the most famous game-site of Alanganallur near Madurai. At least six of these injured bull fighters have suffered critical injuries. Over 600 bulls participated at Alanganallur alone yesterday, the biggest ‘Jallikattu’ show watched by several lakh people including hundreds of foreign tourists, sources said.
The first ‘Jallikattu’ death this season in a village near Boothalur in Thanjavur district was even more poignant, where a 23-year-old youth Muruganandam succumbed to severe bore injuries when he was knocked down by a raging bull there. The deceased was to have got married shortly, but his brave fight plunged his would-be wife in misery.
Even ‘Bull-taming’ is quite a misnomer for this game, say sources in Madurai. The sport is more known in Tamil Nadu as ‘Manju Virattu’ (chasing the bull) and is in total contrast with the Spanish bull fights where the animals are killed.
The well-fed bulls from a host of farms are brought by the bull-owners and from behind an open space they are let loose through a narrow corridor into the arena. The boys there then take the plunge, chase them until the bulls are “held by their hump,” sources told HT from Madurai today. It is not quite taking the bull by its horns though in some places groups of youths try to do just that, sources pointed out.
The Tamils claim a proud ancestry for ‘Jallikattu’, dating to over 2000 years back in their cultural history to the ‘classical Sangam literature’ days. What was meant to be bull-taming in the course of the centuries, got modified into bull-chasing and seizing it for just a brief while in a “moment of triumph”, sources said.
The referee then blows the whistle and the bull-seizers so to say walk away with attractive prizes which differ from venue to venue, depending on the amount of cash sponsors put into the game. They range from even colour television sets, bicycles, and steel almairahs to a host of daily-used items like utensils or even an electric shaving set.
However, in recent years when casualty figures from the games were looming high including a large number of spectators also getting hurt as bulls run amok into the crowd, animal rights activists including representatives from the Animal Welfare Board of India and the Blue Cross, wanted to have it banned due to the game’s grotesqueness and the pain it inflicted on animals as well. The latter was mainly due to some “over-ambitious sponsors” who wanted their bulls to be invincible, giving them intoxicants in the run-up to the ‘Jallikattu’ and even batter them at will, sources said. That kind of “brutalization” made the animals ferocious and uncontrollable, sources said.
Now with the Supreme Court Guidelines, laid down when it conditionally allowed ‘Jallikattu’ to be organized under the watchful eyes of the District Adminsitration – each event will have to be even video-graphed and sent to the Apex Court under the supervision of animal rights activists-, all that has changed. This is one reason for comparatively less casualties, both in number terms and the severity of the injuries.
The Apex Court said the play arena has to be “double-barricaded” to avoid any raging bull hit the spectators, even as both the ‘matadors’ and the bulls are tested for any alcohol consumption before the games. A team of veterinary doctors also examine the medical fitness of the bulls before any game, even as each player is given a uniform and an identification number. Only they can enter the arena and others kept out. The organizers have also considerably reduced the distance the ‘matadors’ have to run after holding the bull by its hump in the interests of safety and lesser injuries, sources said.