It’s not Pongal without jallikattu – that was the refrain from parts of Tamil Nadu this week as the ban on the bull taming sport remained in place, despite promises by political leaders to have it reinstated. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Paneerselvam announced early this month that he would take steps to ensure that jallikattu was allowed and even met with central government ministers on the issue. With no favourable response forthcoming, he made a last-ditch effort on Wednesday, writing to the Prime Minister to urge him to lift the ban in recognition of the sentiments of Tamil people.

Even M Karunanidhi, leader of the rival Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam party, threw his weight behind the cause, calling jallikattu a symbol of Tamil culture and tradition. The DMK organised a protest against the ban in Alanganallur town of Madurai district, one of the main centres where the sport is conducted. Joining the chorus against the restrictions were Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam leader Vijaykant and Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay.

Despite all the noise, the ban has reminded firmly in place. In May last year, the Supreme Court upheld a central government notification from 2011 that included bulls in a list of animals that cannot be used as performing animals. The decision meant that bulls could not be used in traditional sports like Tamil Nadu’s jallikattu and Maharshtra’s bullock-cart racing.

The brave ones

Jallikattu involves money being tied around a bull’s horns before releasing the animal into an enclosure. A tamer, often a young man determined to show off his valour, tries to catch the bull and ride it for a prescribed distance. If he manages to stay on the animal, he wins the prize. Jallikattu events are popular in Alanganallur, Palamedu, Dindigul and other towns around Madurai.

The sport is an old tradition and its roots can be traced as far back as 6,000 years ago in the Neolithic period when man first tried to domesticate cattle to begin an agrarian society, says art historian KT Gandhirajan. In 2008, Gandhirajan discovered rock paintings of men chasing bulls that were more than 3,500 years old in a remote village in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu.

“Jallikattu has been recorded in 2,000 years of literature," said Gandhirajan. "This traditions has been practiced all over Tamil Nadu by different names in different forms.”  Eventually, it became an event at which the village would gather with all its cattle.

Brutal sport

But this latest iteration of bull taming has been the most brutal to the animals too. The Supreme Court considered reports from the Animal Welfare Board of India on how bulls were beaten, poked, their tails twisted and bitten, their ears cut, and even force-fed alcohol during jallikattu events.

Even Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu act of 2009, which aimed to reduce injuries and deaths among bull-tamers and spectators, failed to protect the animals, the court observed. Above all, the two-judge bench struck out at the fundamental reason behind what makes a jallikattu bull run. The judges observed that the animal’s fight or flight response was being exploited in the sport. Keeping the animal in a state of fear to elicit that response amounted to cruelty. The judgment cited animal behaviour specialists Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson's work Animals in Translation, saying "The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it is worse than pain."

And so it is that in 2015, the idea of preventing cruelty to jallikattu bulls has prevailed over the demands for preserving a farming community ritual that was morphed into a feudal spectator sport.