These pictures chronicle the excitement of the bulls, their owners, potential bull tamers and the prizes they compete for in this traditional festival.
The tinkle of bells could be heard in the wee hours of the morning as the bulls were coming in through the streets of Alanganallur. Most of the bulls were arriving after competing in the Palamedu Jallikattu. Spectators had started to occupy the galleries at the Alanganallur venue the previous night itself. It was February 10 and Alanganallur looked forward to hosting Jallikattu after a gap of two years. By 3 am, the galleries were full.
At 9 am, the temple bull was brought in first, giving it pride of place. The crowd cheered. As is the tradition, the temple bull just ran and no one attempted to tame it. The yellow cloths tied to the festoon of mango leaves, fluttering in the wind, marked the 50-feet-long arena’s boundary. As the bulls lined up, Nagaraj waited excitedly with his bull Ponni; Nagaraj to tame and Ponni not to be tamed.
The code of conduct
As Nagaraj recounted his Jallikattu journey, a team of officials was checking each bull’s identity card – issued by the Animal Welfare Board of India and obtained by the bull owner by paying a fee of Rs 500. Getting the bull certified as a performing animal was a measure introduced in 2011.
A team of veterinary doctors was checking the bulls, ensuring that they had not been given any performance enhancing substances. “Bulls without ID cards, without a certificate for the vaccines given twice a year and bulls with injuries would be rejected,” informed R. Kumarasamy, whose family has been rearing and taming for generations. The officials ascertained that no oil or sacred ash was smeared on the hump and the horns had not been sharpened.
The officials also ensured that the registered tamers had not consumed alcohol. Though Saravanakumar, a regular in the Jallikattu circuit, started when he was fifteen, as per the present rules, the participants’ minimum age is 18.
After the temple bull left the arena, one by one the bulls came through the vadivasal or the entry point.
The crowd kept cheering each bull. While the youngsters cheered the tamers, the older people cheered the bulls, beseeching them not to be caught. As the bulls twisted and turned, the tamers tried to restrain them and rolled on the ground when they could not. The coir pith on the ground cushioned their fall.
The experienced bulls arched their bodies as they jumped, eluding the tamers. If the bulls were not caught, the prize went to the owner. The prize went to the tamer if he held onto the hump till the finish line. The prizes in Alanganallur included a car and ten motorcycles, including five Royal Enfields.
When the sport was on, the officials ensured that the tamers did not touch the horns or the tails as per the rules of the game.
At the ‘collection point’ where the bull’s handlers picked the bull emerging from the arena, it was interesting to see raging bulls calming down at the handlers’ gentle instructions.
Reared for pride and glory
Jallikattu bulls are bred solely for the sport. They are never used as draught animals. “There is no commercial benefit. Rearing them involves expenditure only. But owning them is a symbol of honour,” said Pichaimuthu. Their services as stud bulls are offered for free, claimed the bull owners.
The bulls are made to swim once a week when they are given a bath, to make their legs strong. They are fed with groundnut and sesame seed oil cakes, cotton seed, fodder, corn stalk, rice and jaggery. “We spend Rs 200 to Rs 300 every day for our bulls. We may starve but never stop feeding them their special diet. We rear them only for the pride of seeing them participate in Jallikattu,” said Govindaraj, who owns two bulls. His pride was evident when he talked about the times his bulls could not be tamed. “Other bulls used in the field would be brought back after a hard day’s work. Yet the owner will feed the Jallikattu bull first. They always get such royal treatment,” said P. Rajasekaran, president of the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Federation.
Bulls and tamers – a parallel journey
There is no special training to become a tamer. 28-year-old Saravanakumar learnt by taming a calf bought when he was fifteen. “In many villages, the Pulikulam and Kangeyam calves – the breeds most commonly used in Jallikattu – graze in the common pasture. The pasture serves as the training ground for both the youth and the calves, to get used to each other,” informed Rajasekaran.
To vadivasal and back
The journey to vadivasal had begun a day ahead of the sport, when the elders and owners marched the bulls to the temple for a special pooja. “We use a different restraining rope to run through the bull’s nose, when we bring it for Jallikattu. The experienced ones understand and stop eating. So, right after the sport, we feed them,” said Nagaraj.
After the Jallikattu event came to a close, Nagaraj was as excited as he was at the beginning. He had won a gold coin, besides many household articles, by taming two bulls. His bull Ponni had not been tamed and won him a cycle.