It’s that time of year again: the rice has just been harvested, the sugarcane stalks are freshly cut, fresh milk and rice are being boiled in pots, and the bulls somehow know it’s their time. Pongal, and inevitably, Jallikattu are here.
Since time immemorial and even beyond, a certain region of Tamil Nadu has played host to the bull-taming sport of Jallikattu. It is believed to be at least 2000 years old and is an integral part of the Pongal celebrations in the south and central districts of Tamil Nadu, the true belt of Jallikattu. Once played only as a way to show strength, and unimaginably so, a test of the masculinity of male youth in the harness, it soon evolved into a competitive, high-stakes, and more recently, controversial sport.
Also read | Explained | Jallikattu: Cultural Practice or Cruelty?
This Jallikattu season, Thachankurichi in Pudukottai district started on 8th January. Although nearby Tiruchi district has so far received 21 requests for permission to hold Jallikattu, Collector M. Pradeep Kumar says no new locations for the event will be allowed.
But traditionally the action is in Madurai district as three major Jallikattu events are lined up in Avaniapuram, Palameda and Alanganallur for three consecutive days starting from Sunday. Periya Suriyur and Avarangadu in Tiruchi will host their own events on January 16 and 17.
But the Jallikattu conducted today is a hard fought victory for bull tamers and owners. Following the ban on Jallikattu between 2014 and 2016, the state witnessed unprecedented protests in January 2017. The public, especially the youth, took to the streets across the state in support of the traditional sport and demanded that the ban be lifted.
Consequently, the then Tamil Nadu government promulgated an Ordinance in 2017 making a state amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The Center approved it. Subsequently, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2017 was enacted on the basis that the sport of bull taming is the cultural heritage of the state and is protected under Article 29(1) of the Constitution. Soon after, the Rulebook for the implementation of the Law was adopted. In December 2022, the Constitutional Council of the Supreme Court reserved for judgment a series of petitions demanding that this law be repealed, questioning its constitutional validity.
Various parameters of bulls, including height, breed, age and colour, have to be checked by veterinarians before they are allowed to participate in Jallikattu. | Author of the photo: R. ASHOK
According to the Rules, a Jallikattu committee, comprising officials from the Revenue, Animal Husbandry Department, Police and Health, is supposed to supervise and monitor the conduct of the sport. Participants can only hug the bulls by the hump and run next to the bull for 15 m or 30 seconds or withstand three bull jumps. They must not hold their hands on the tail or horns or restrict the movement of the bulls by holding on to their legs.
Strengthening security measures
Under the watchful eye of organizations raising their voices against the relevant issue of animal cruelty in competition, every district administration must do more, not only to ensure that bulls are not tortured, as was the practice among a few in the past, but also to ensure that no human life be lost, and that every attempt be made to save the lives of those gored/trampled by bulls. In Tiruchi, for example, the number of bulls to be released in each event is to be limited to 700 and the events will have to end by 2 pm.
A total of 9699 bulls and 5399 eager tamers have registered to participate in Jallikattu events in Madurai. The country has to strike a delicate balance between the local fervor for the sport and the rules that must be followed. In Madurai, both animals and tamers were selected through a computerized lottery system to limit the number of bulls, even giving equal opportunities to bull owners from different districts.
Aiming to limit the number of bulls at each event in Madurai district, the online registration system will allow bull owners to choose only one of the three venues – Avaniapuram, Palamedu and Alanganallur.
There are also strict measures for the selection of bulls and tamers. Veterinarians must check bulls for various parameters, including height, breed, age and color. Only domestic bulls above three years of age and free of any injury or infection are certified to participate in Jallikattu, says S. Nataraja Kumar, Joint Director, Animal Husbandry. Criteria for participating bulls include a minimum height of 120 cm, a normal gait, horns that are not sharp and regular vaccinations. “Even bulls deemed medically fit will be re-examined before being allowed to enter the arena,” he adds.
Veterinary teams will be present at all viewpoints at the event locations. “In addition, for the first time, bulls leaving the arena after the race will be checked for injuries in the holding area. Injuries, if any, will be treated immediately,” says Mr. Nataraja Kumar.
Similarly, a physical fitness certificate is mandatory for bull tamers. For the first time, an ‘Advanced Life Support’ ambulance and X-ray unit will be stationed at Avaniapuram. The Madurai district administration has installed CCTV cameras at the venues. Collector S. Aneesh Sekhar says the bulls will be given food and water at a sheltered spot.
Clear instructions on adherence to standard operating procedures (SOPs), including setting up double barricades from vadivasal to the bull run area. A double vaccination certificate against COVID-19 together with a negative RT-PCR report is mandatory for participating tamers and spectators.
According to S. Raja, event organizer for the Periya Suriyur event, “a truck with trailers will be parked on both sides of the barricaded bull run area. This way spectators can watch the event from the top of the trailers as the cost of setting up galleries is high.”
The Madurai district police have erected metal barricades at some places to prevent the barriers from collapsing under the pressure of the increasing number of people. There is a new arrangement to simplify the movement of bulls from assembly points to vadivasal in Palamed and Alanganallur, where over 1000 bulls are expected to participate.
This happened after bulls attacked each other in the Palamed bull enclosure last year. This year, a system of entry barricades will provide a kilometer-long queue through which registered bulls will be let through. “This will prevent the unauthorized entry of unregistered bulls and also avoid the entry of bulls outside the ranks of local or influential bulls. people,” says Madurai Superintendent of Police R. Shiva Prasad.
After revenue and police officials scan the QR codes on the printed passes and confirm entry, the bulls will be released into the barricaded waiting system according to the numerical order of the pass serial numbers (tokens) issued by the district administration. “A four foot wide track will only allow one bull at a time. The long queue system will handle up to 300 to 400 bulls in a barricaded area,” says Mr. Shiva Prasad. The police have also introduced separate entrances and exits in the bull taming arena. Medical teams for tamers and bulls, as well as ambulances, will be on standby. A team of 10 volunteers from the Indian Red Cross Society will be present to provide first aid to the victims, says A. Rajkumar, coordinator for Madurai.
Foreign tourists can watch Jallikattu from a vantage point in a separate gallery at Alanganallur. This time it is a group of visitors from Germany and France, says District Tourism Officer SM Sribalamurugan. The organizers of the Jallikattu say that a host of prizes are in store for the winning tamers and bull owners – cars, motorcycles, bicycles, LED TVs and refrigerators.
(With contributions by R. Rajaram in Tiruchi, B. Tilak Chandar, R. Jayashree and S. Abraham Mills in Madurai.)