Vasugi tasted the rewards of protest on Tuesday morning. She and her cousins, Dilber, Keerthiniya, and Webster, sat on makeshift stands hooting at bulls chasing men in Madurai’s Alanganallur town. Coconut husks lined the path, soft bedding to protect against injury if a rogue bull tossed a man in the air.
By mid-morning, just as Keerthiniya grew hoarse from the screaming, three rounds of jallikattu, the traditional bull-vault sport that takes place around the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, had been completed.
Of the 1,100 bulls and 400 tamers registered to participate at the Alanganallur event, 220 bulls and 95 tamers had already had a field day winning gold coins, mixies, and LED TVs. For first place in the competition – the keys to a Nissan Magnite car – either a tamer had to tame as many bulls as he could, or a bull had to look ferocious enough that no tamer dared come close. One bull succeeded in this quest and later plonked itself in the middle of the arena for a light rest.
At 7.24 am, to thunderous applause, Tamil Nadu’s minister for youth welfare and sports development, Udhayanidhi Stalin, flagged off his first jallikattu after being appointed to the state cabinet a month ago. The morning dew covered the brand new cars parked on a pedestal with a picture of his father, Chief Minister MK Stalin, on the banner.
The press gallery overlooking the arena went into a frenzy to capture the sports minister patting a revered village bull on the forehead and holding the rope handed to him. Vasugi and her cousins joined the audience to honour the three temple bulls from neighbouring villages with loud applause. One of them was in a visibly foul mood.
In May 2014, the Supreme Court of India banned jallikattu and bullock cart racing in Tamil Nadu, observing that even bulls have the right to protection against torture. Five years ago, spontaneous protests broke out against the ban in places like Chennai and Madurai, led by college students. They interpreted the ban as a direct assault on Tamil culture and age-old village traditions. Vasugi was the first woman to join the protest in Madurai’s Goripalayam, while Dilber had joined the protests in Madurai’s American College, where she was a student.
On Tuesday, in the village of Alanganallur, 17 km from Madurai, each time a tamer held onto a bull’s hump, Vasugi said she felt happy. “I get why we protested!” she said. “It feels great.” As she stood talking, ambulances whizzed past carrying injured tamers, reminding everyone about the dangers of the sport.
Said Webster: “Honestly, the sport is crueler on humans than bulls. Yesterday, a young man died in the Palamedu Jallikattu.”
The deaths over the years, however, have bit lowered the spirits of jallikattu lovers. For hours on Monday, Tamil news channels flashed alerts about 26-year-old bull tamer Aravinthraj who was gored in the arena after he had tamed nine bulls. Stalin announced Rs 3 lakh solatium to the family.
In Alanganallur, as residents close to the venue peered out of their balconies to look at charging bulls, the police readied to cordon off a part of the visitor’s gallery for VIPs. A handful of foreigners took pictures of the bulls exiting the vadivasal, the point from where the animals leap out in a rage when their owner cuts off the rope tied through their nostrils.
The mood was upbeat, and the venue was noisy. Just before the event began, bull tamers with jerseys #6 and #7 grinned for the cameras. Others bowed down to touch the vadivasal as a form of prayer. Audiences cheered, ambulances wailed and the MC shouted instructions in Tamil: “There should be no rope tied to the bull or no prize / don’t catch the tail/ bull owners, please collect your bulls at the exit/ collect your gold coin….”
Meanwhile, jersey #10 hugged a bull’s hump and got tossed around three times as the bull attempted to shake him off. The MC shouted: “Super da, go collect a gold coin from honourable sports minister Udhayanidhi Stalin.”
A group of four confused bulls returned to the vadivasal from the finish line. “Police, please clear the runway and send the bulls away,” screamed the MC. One after another, the bulls continued on a mad dash. Jersey #21 picked up a gold coin for his brave antics, his colleague #25 checked to see if he was bleeding after being tossed off a bull. A grumpy #1 looked disappointed for being unable to hold on to a raging bull.
In the stands, Vasugi and her cousins grinned at their success of their plan to sit in the public gallery. “We planned this outing and lined up at 4 am,” said Dilber. “We worried that if we get married, we may never have this opportunity for a cousins’ hangout again.”
Dilber abandoned these thoughts, fished out her phone from her bag, and showed off an image of the famous seal retrieved from an Indus Valley Site featuring a Zebu bull. “When a bull named Sindhu scratched the ground and pushed two humans out of her way today, I felt like we were watching this seal come alive,” she said. “What a huge connection this is to the IVC [Indus Valley Civilisation]! I felt emotional.”
Many bull owners talked passionately about the generational nature of the sport. “For four generations, we have been raising bulls,” said Gunasekaran, walking his bull Marudhu home from the exit point. It was a 1.5 km stretch from the vadivasal to where the owners collect their animals. Some owners, in addition to their bulls, pushed brand-new cycles and carried home steel almirahs. One minivan had a bull and bicycle strapped to the back.
Over time, the number of participating bulls has increased, and the prizes have grown more expensive, said a bull owner. “Back then, a wall clock, a mixie, or a fan would be a huge prize,” he said. “Now it is a car! “Like one t-shirt read, it takes a “Jallikattu Squad” and between Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 to participate in the sport.
“The event has also become very political,” said Gunasekaran. “Before, it was an event with agricultural labourers, and now politicians and the police are involved.”
Elsewhere, a Marai breed named Vellamuni threw a hissy fit and dug his hoof into the mud. Men shouted and strategised on how to calm the bull down. “We will have to wait to pacify the animal before we can take it home,” said the owner of another bull. His bull’s name was Ramu, and he was in line to exit the vadivasal.
“A lot has changed about this sport,” said the man. “It used to be very rowdy when gangs would have a go at each other, knowing the cops won’t slap cases. Now it is more organised.”
The conversation was interrupted by six bulls bouncing furiously towards the main road knocking down parked motorbikes. “MAADU, MAADU” shouted onlookers. The crowd ran for cover.
Ramu’s owner pointed out that some of the bulls have phone numbers written on their bodies. “If the bull runs away, people can call the owner and say, ‘Hey, I just saw your bull run past!”
Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist in Chennai.