On Friday, Chennai’s Marina Beach wore the look of a carnival. The protests against the ban on the traditional bull-taming sport jallikattu that brought a crowd of students to the seaside promenade on Tuesday had turned into a cultural fiesta.
The beach was pulsating with men and women of all ages and beliefs. Along the footpath of Kamarajar Salai, the road that runs along the beach, thousands held placards and posters and shouted slogans, joining their families, friends, neighbours, classmates and co-workers in a coruscating exhibition of Tamil pride.
In one spot, some youths displayed their dexterity in the Tamil martial art of silambattam. At another clearing on the footpath, a little girl who seemed no older than seven demanded that the NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals be banned for its role in the Supreme Court order in 2014 that shut down jallikattu bouts. An elderly man sang a song, drawing massive cheers.
There was also plenty of food. By about 1 pm, the smell of biryani spices and sambar rice wafted through the air as dozens of people distributed packets of food from minivans. Packets of water were flung across to thirsty protesters.
Three days after the demonstrations began, they show no signs of diminishing. Though Marina Beach has the focal point of the protests, across the city, office-goers have been standing outside the places of work, singing out: Chinamma Chinamma, OPS enga ma. Chinamma, where is O Paneerselvam?
The catchy refrain, which references “Little Mother” Sasikala Natarajan, the general secretary of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Paneerselvam, was driven by the rhythms of hand-held percussion instruments.
But it was the Modi slogans that were clearly more popular.
Modi Modi, enga ponaan odi?
Where did Modi run away?
Vaazhurar Modi, Vaazhurar Tata.
Modi is living, so is Tata.
Vaazhurar Modi, Vaazhurar Ambani.
Modi is living, so is Ambani.
Vaazhurar Modi, Saavuranga Vyavasayi!
Modi is living, farmers are dying.
‘Tamilians, stand up!’: M Muniraj, garment store worker
“Tamilians have been bending down for so many years, but we have to stand up now,” declared M Muniraj, a 25-year-old employee in a garment store.
Muniraj had been standing with a group of friends on the footpath by Marina Beach, holding posters with slogans in support of jallikattu since Tuesday. Clad in black shirts and jeans like most of the men on Marina Beach, Muniraj was holding a banner that said that “Tamil is our identity, jallikattu is our tradition.”
Muniraj’s family has its roots in Madurai district, not far from Alanganallur – a village famous for its large-scale jallikattu events. Muniraj said that he had once participated in a jallikattu bout, and the experience was unforgettable. “There is a different energy level when you play the game,” he said. “There is just so much excitement all around.”
As he spoke about the jallikattu ban, Muniraj made no attempt to mask his resentment about the way he perceived Tamilians were treated by people in North India.
“Do they think we are meek?” he asked. “They think that we should listen to whatever they say. We won’t let that happen and allow the next generation to suffer too. For example, OPS opened the door for Modi. Is that the chief minister’s work? Why are you bending down? Stand up!”
Muniraj felt that the Tamil culture was being systematically wiped out by the central government. “Just for a few people why should we give away our tradition? We don’t want to give it up and will fight until we win this battle!”
‘Salute jallikattu!’: R Shanti, lawyer
Among the many jallikattu supporters gathered on the beach was R Shanti, a 50-year-old lawyer.
Even though she had joined the protests on Marina Beach only on Friday, she had spent the last few days mulling over and discussing about how the ban could be revoked.
“Tamilians are showing a kind of an energy like never seen before,” she said. “This should not go waste.”
Shanti was from a small village near Neyveli in Cuddalore district where manju virattu, a kind of bull-racing sport, was popular. Her father was a farmer who owned a few cows and a bull. Shanti remembers the times as a child when she and her brother would run alongside the bull until she was left far behind and would reach home long after the animal.
But these traditional pastimes were disappearing, said Shanti, and the central government was ensuring that they did.
Shanti felt that Tamilians too were responsible for ignoring their traditions as they adopted other cultutral practices. Among the other traditional games and activities that were being forgotten by Tamilians was such as manjal vilayatta, where people spray turmeric water on each other. “Instead we go and take up Holi where we use chemicals and artificial colours,” she said. “Manjal villayatta is a beautiful sport that we have forgotten. Turmeric is an anti-septic too.”
Shanti said that jallikattu was not a religious practice, so Prime Minister Narendra Modi should promote it and salute it. “It is a part of the livelihood of farmers, which has been coming down the generations,” she said. “We as supporters will not leave without the issue being resolved, no matter how many days it takes.”
‘PETA down down!’: G Ezhilarasi, medical student
Seated below the statue of Tamil poet Avvaiyar on Marina Beach were scores of medical students, all of whom were wearing white lab coats and shouting, “PETA down down!”
Among them was G Ezhilarasi, a third-year student of Chettinad Medical College. As a child, Ezhilarasi’s family, who live in nearby Mahabalipuram, had taken her on a vacation to Alanganallur village when the famous jallikattu event was being conducted. She remembered how the participants had attempted to hug the bull one by one, and the rules being announced on the microphone. “It was very well organised, and animals are never hurt,” she said. “There is no cruelty at all. Nobody could break the rules or they would be disqualified and fined.”
Although she had found the sport fascinating, Ezhilarasi said that she had a very clear scientific reason for showing her support for jallikattu. Like many others, after her interest spiked in the jallikattu issue recently, Ezhilarasi had been researching the sport on the internet.
She explained that jallikattu allowed farmers to identify the strongest bulls and use them to impregnate the cows. “This way the calf will be strong and the native breeds will be strengthened,” she said. “This is more than just a sport, or even preserving our culture. This is even about protecting our health and economy.”
Ezhilarasi said that if the native breeds died out, only foreign companies would be left to sell milk products and make money. Indians would have to pay a higher price for these items. “We already know that when we buy a chips packet, most if it is filled with air,” she said.
‘It’s an ancient custom’: Sameer Bhowmik, migrant from Delhi
Sameer Bhowmik moved to Chennai from Delhi less than five months ago but he and his friends had already adopted the Tamil ways. Wearing a sunglasses and a white veshti, the corporate lawyer wanted to sport as authentic a look as possible while holding up a placard reading, “We support jallikattu”.
“We don’t get to wear such clothes on other occasions, so we thought why not?” said Bhowmik.
Bhowmik had heard about the existence of the sport only four days ago, after which he read up about its history and cultural significance.
“Whatever is custom becomes law,” said Bhowmik. “If it is a custom that has been practiced for 2,000 years, it must have some basis or logic behind it. For few exceptions, we cannot ban the entire practice.”
Claiming that the sport was banned unfairly through a series of government interventions through law, Bhowmik and his friends decided to stop by the protest on Tuesday just to have a look. They were so impressed with the way it was organised that they came back every day after.
“Today as well, we took leave for half the day, dressed as Tamilians and came to suppport jallikattu,” said Bhowmik.
Bhowmik observed that the protests were not like the ones he was used to seeing in North India.
“There is no doubt a very large crowd, but there is no damage to public property,” he said. “People are not very aggressive, instead they are harmlessly standing in the sun, distributing water and food. People are very dedicated to their culture.”
‘People are forgetting their culture’: Noorullah Hussain, accupuncturist
Noorullah Hussain had watched jallikattu bouts several times in his family’s native village near Tiruvanamalai till the ban was imposed in 2014. Now he hardly sees any bulls in his village anymore.
“Before there used to be huge bulls that were double my height,” he said. “Now all of them are being sold off. Everything has become so modernised, now that people are moving towards automation, and forgetting their culture.”
Hussain is an accupuncturist and a soft skills developer, and has lived all his life in Chennai. But he still visits his native village every year, especially at the time of the harvest festival of Pongal.
“You cannot tie the festival to a particular religion,” he said. “After you finish agricultural work, everyone celebrates in their own way.”
Even though Hussain and his family have never participated in jallikattu, they find it enjoyable to watch. He said that irrespective of religion, all Tamilians had a shared culture that must be preserved.
He feels that the ban on jallikattu could just be a precedent for other cultural practices to be banned.
“Jallikattu is just one case,” he said. “Tomorrow they may come and say you should not slaughter animals for food.”