A sea of humans swells and ebbs in Thammampatti, a small town near Salem in Tamil Nadu. There are people everywhere easily tens of thousands; they flood the roads filling the narrow alleys, their eager faces gaze down from rooftops, they are perched precariously on bamboo scaffoldings to get a better look. And then comes the juggernaut, the bull.
Festooned with gulal, ribbons and garlands and moving its head agitatedly showing off the razor-sharp horns it tears past the mass of humans. A hush engulfs the crowd and the excitement is palpable. The not-so-brave scamper to shelter themselves from the onslaught; the barricades are no match to the brute force of the beast. The alley, which looked jam-packed just one moment back, miraculously gives way.
Horns, Hump and tail: Different folks, Different Strokes
The brave and the not-so-brave
A few brave men venture forward; almost all of them are in high spirits, literally and figuratively speaking. The most audacious among them make an attempt for the bull’s hump, the not-so-daring make for its tail and the puniest among them are content to just touch the bull and beat it once.
The scene gets repeated many times with myriad variations.
A muscular man who looks smug holding on to the bull’s tail, is shaken off the next moment and falls violently on the ground; an anxious murmur rises from the crowd but the very next moment he is back on his feet looking smug again.
Don’t mess with me!
The bull corners a man and they stare at each other, eyes unblinking. The scene looks straight out of a typical Bollywood movie, the crowd holds on to its breath, another man lunges for the bull from behind and the fellow in front runs for his life.
Two hot to handle!
A bull is goring a group of men; it is black in color with its skin gleaming in the hot Sun. Till now it has shaken off everyone who has tried to get on it. And suddenly without any warning another burly black bull crashes into the crowd.
A rather lanky fellow in shiny blue jersey and shorts holds on to the hump of the bull with a triumphant look on his face and the crowd goes giddy with joy.
Bull taming, Indian Style
This is Jallikattu for you, an ancient bull taming sport played in Tamil Nadu, India as a part of the celebrations of harvest festival, Pongal. The ritual dates back to 2000 years, in fact there are several rock paintings, at remote Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu that show men chasing bulls.
A particularly ferocious species of bull, the Kangeyam bull is let on rampage and taming it without any weapon whatsoever is taken as a mark of masculinity. The man who holds on to the bull from the entrance of the bull pen to the marker can boast about it all round the year, and of course he is entitled to the prizes like cash, watches, lungis, cookers etc. Legend has it that in earlier days women used the game to choose their husbands.
But what am I doing here? Certainly not looking for potential husbands.
All for glory?
The electric atmosphere
I am standing delicately on a rooftop; I feel as if I don’t even have enough room to wink my eyelids. I have my weapon in my hand, my new camera Canon Rebel XT on which dust has already started settling. My fellow shutterbugs are somewhere around, lost in the throng, busy capturing the event through their lenses.
The sun is beating down on us relentlessly; the odor of sweat mingling with dry air is omnipresent. An ice candy man has found room in the street down amidst the commotion and he is selling orange candies. I lust these sweetmeats, but make do with water for now, I don’t want to lose this spot, which presents a good view of the alley down.
The commetator’s voice punctuates the already tense air; I don’t understand a thing, my knowledge of Tamil being limited to a few unmentionable expletives and movie songs. But my friends tell me later that the commentator announces the prize money attached to a particular bull thus goading and enticing men to run for it.
And do the already charged men need any goading? They fall on the bull without any prompting.
A kid in the safe hands of his granny
You need a funny bone
There are light moments too, in the otherwise violent and charged atmosphere.
A man looking abashed is being pulled back home forcefully by his wife, who certainly doesn’t looked amused by the idea of her husband taming the bull and in turn being gored by it.
A silence falls over the crowd in expectance of the bull, but a collective laughter rises from the crowd as the object of curiosity turns out to be a dog.
A local enthusiastically tells me that this happens only in Tamil Nadu, I want to tell him about the Spanish bullfights, but by now I’ve realized that Jallikattu is quite different. Unlike the Spanish bullfights Jallikattu does not end with the death of the bull. And moreover I don’t want to puncture his enthusiasm so I nod at him smiling.
Earlier in the day we had visited a bullpen. The bulls specially bred for Jallikattu are brought from districts near and far, some on foot and some hauled on small tempos. Even when tied to a leash it takes at least two to three men to control a bull.
The balance in this sport is tilted in the bull’s favor if you consider the raw power of a bull against that of a single man. But when its one bull against the crowd the balance gets skewed and in Thammampatti I saw this happening quite often.
One Against Many: A Skewed Balance
Surviving Jallikattu, unscraped
But even when the throng is against the bull there are cases of injuries, it is not a place for the timid hearted, and blood shed is commonplace here. The Supreme Court of India had banned Jallikattu, but it revoked the ban under the condition that necessary precautions would be taken to prevent cruelty to animals and injuries to humans.
And precautions are taken in Thammampatti, an ambulance is doing rounds of the alleys, bulls are subjected to a round of screening before the event, police personnels are posted all along the street though they are having a hard time controlling the staggering crowd.
The throng carries on enthusiastically till the last bull is brought out. The sun is all set to dip. The crowd, tired after a hard day, disperses. The street vendors selling idli, vada and other South Indian delicacies are doing a brisk business. We indulge in some yummy street food before we start back for Bangalore.
The next day as I read the newspapers I come to know that around 70 persons were injured in the Jallikattu in Thammampatti, much less than the count last year. Given that there have been two hundred casualties in Jallikattu in the last one decade, the Supreme Court ban though revoked seems to have made this sport a little safe at least. I send a silent prayer to my Gods for having survived my friends and me unscraped through Jallikattu, though a bizarre one at that, Jallikattu was an experience worth having.
*gulal - Colored powder
*lungi - A garment worn round the waist.
*idli - A savory cake made of batter of fermented rice, black lentils and fenugreek, a popular snack throughout South India.
*vada - A dough nut shaped South Indian delicacy made from lentil.