Most of the festivals in India are either directly or indirectly related to the cultural past of the country. As the generation changes, it undergoes various evolutionary processes which sometimes may subject to immense changes from the original version and make it trail off the heritage track. Rajashri Iyer, brings out the evolutionary graph of such a crippled version of a traditional Tamil festival ‘manju viratuu’, now famous all over the world as ‘Jallikkattu’.
‘Thai pirandal vazhi pirakkum’ (birth of the Thai month will pave way for new opportunities) is a common saying among the Tamils when referring Pongal, the harvest festival being named after a dish. For the Tamils, Pongal is not only a harvest festival but a delicious dish prepared on and off the festival also. Like Onam for Kerala, Lohri for Punjab and Haryana, Pongal is also a harvest festival, commemorating the once rich agrarian community existed here.
Every harvest festival is meant to pay gratitude and homage to the Nature and the natural beings which supported the humans for their gross harvest. Pongal also, celebrated in 4 consecutive days, each day dedicated to different energies. First day is dedicated to Lord Indra, who provided rain for their farming (Bhogi Pongal). The second day is dedicated to praying to Sun God, by cooking pongal. (pongal means ‘boiling over’ which points out the ‘state of being auspiciously full’)in the name Surya pongal.. The third day is ‘Maattu pongal’, on which, the cattle are being decorated and worshipped, as they were also a part of their farming and labor. Fourth day is ‘Kaanum Pongal’. Family members visit each other; youngsters pay homage to the elders and like a kind of remembrance of the old values once glued to our cultural heritage. As usual, every living festival brings in the lost vigor and recharges the community, with the energy of a strong background to enliven the rest life.
Third day, that is, the ‘mattu pongal’ day is the real celebration among the villagers. On that day, ironically, cattle are being greeted as well as teased to the enjoyment of the onlookers. That is Jallikkattu, the fierce bullfighting which attracts even foreigners to the hot and dusty streets of the Tamil villages. In spite of the urbanization, the tradition and custom related has not diminished here. Though Pongal is a time to discard the old and welcome the new, certain old traits are still clung to the chore of their life style. At times, it reaches the brim of wilderness with which we lived in the Stone Age.
According to Art Historians, this is an age old practice in Tamil Nadu. Certain rock paintings found in Karikkiyur village, in the Nilgiri district show pictures depicting men chasing the bulls. Another such painting has been found out in a cave at Mattuppetti, a small rural area in the Madurai-Dindigul route. That shows a single man trying to control a raged bull. As per the Art Historians, these paintings had been done with red ochre and white kaolin in the style of x-ray painting. Hence they calculate an approximate age of 3500 years to these paintings.
Since the art tells the culture of the time and space, this lead us 3500 years back, when there was a custom, chasing the bulls, which may or may not be the practice of the time. There have been a number of folklores regarding such sport all through Tamil Nadu, as popular warriors used to practice this game as a part of their training and exhibition. Legends tell that women of royal families chose their grooms, by conducting such bull fights, in which the successful ‘matadors’ get the royal brides. This is somewhat similar to the ‘swayamvara’method (choosing the groom out of the invited many by the bride) practiced in ancient imperial palaces.
In the ancient Tamil tradition, there is the mentioning of a custom practiced at the time of pongal, a sportive game called ‘manju virattu’, meaning ‘chasing the bull’. Another version spotted is ‘eruthu kattsu’, denoting ‘lassoing the bulls’. During the harvest festival, the decorated bulls would be let loose in the roads and the village youths would take pride in chasing them and out running them. Women, children and others watched this fun game from the side lines. Nobody was got injured. The youths would take delight in lassoing the sprinting bulls with rope.
Festival is verbally and practically equated always with celebrations and celebration always ties up with revels. Thus while letting loose the tethered animals, they enjoyed the freedom to run apart from the stipulated path without a plough upon their shoulder. The youths also enjoyed playing with them in a sportsman spirit. Others reveled on watching it passively as well as actively. Teeming and bombastic rhapsody reverberated all along. This is what is called a celebration, the relaxation period after a long and tiresome labor.
We can put the curse upon the landlordism; the seigniorial custom existed in India before the colonial invasion. The landlords aided this practice by promoting it into a gallery sport. They associated this game with the village deities in order to have the cent percent take part of the villagers. They established their power always upon their tenants. But they never let their own bulls for the game. They feared to loose their face, if a tenant could win over their bull.
As there are no murals or sculptures depicting the present form of jallikkattu, we can assume that, this is a highly evolved game, the background of which might have some sort of kinship with the ancient ‘manju virattu’. The landlordism intervened may be the root cause of the present ferocious form it availed during the evolution, while being a part of a colorful festival.
When it became a gallery sport, a narrow gate was built to let the bulls one by one into the open air and the contesting youths would be about 100 feet away to control it. The ferocious bulls charge towards the mob around (inside the bamboo fence), and the youths try to wrest the bounty tied to its horns.
Anything laced with valor, adventure and vigor or any one who is virile and macho is an obsession to the Tamils. That is why we see the silver screen heart throbs of Tamil, are always depicted as super humans in the movies. It is particular about the Tamils to adore those who exhibit scrupulous audacity.
Even a film bannered as “jallikkattu” was a box office hit here starring none other than Superstar Rajanikanth. In another Tamil movie ‘virumandi’, it was Ulaga nayagan Kamal Hassan who has essayed the role of a jallikkattu contestant. Kamal Hassan, known for his innovative experiments in acting, has done the risky scenes with the bull without a screen dupe.
During the event, thousands of villagers crowded at the site encircled with bamboo fences. The specially nurtured bulls of the Auroch trait having more vigor and power than the ordinary bulls, decorated with marigold garlands and turmeric powder, are being released for the ‘fight or flight’ game. Youths try to cling onto its hump, the bull kicks them off by shaking its body, sometimes it tramples them and runs in a rage, another one comes by sometimes get on with. The crowd including the foreigners howls and shrieks in revelry. If there is a winner, he gets a T-shirt or a film CD.
Often it becomes a bloody sport, killing and mauling the contestants. Sometimes the raged bull with its razor sharp horns bursts into the spectators and many hurt in the stampede. People, sometimes jostled to have a closer look at the bull, then the barricades become useless.
In 2008, when such a stampede occurred, a 14 year boy died, after the bull plowed into the spectators. Then the Supreme Court banned this game connoting it as ‘violent and wild’ in nature. But they had to bow before the mammoth protests of the villagers who threatened to surrender their ration cards if the government did not take action against the ban. They even resolved to observe January 15th (the day of jallikkatt) as ‘black day’.
The same gory things repeated in various venues after lifting the ban. Meanwhile, the Animal Welfare Board petitioned to the court as the sport is the violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. They alleged that, these beasts are being pushed forward after sprinkling chilly powder and lemon juice into their eyes. To make them more ferocious, they are made to drink alcohol and the already alcoholic contestants hurt them by pulling their tails etc. But the organizing committee and the public countered these arguments by pointing out that; the contestants were unarmed while the animal’s horns were sharpened. Unlike the similar Spanish bull fighting, these animals were let loose and never get assaulted.
Again the Supreme Court had to lift the ban but they advocated the government to conduct the event “only under sufficient precautionary and safety measures”. Still what was the outcome? – More than 20 casualties.
But deaths never deter the spirit of Tamils. In spite of the protests and verdicts, the bloody tradition continues here guising as a part of the rich Tamil culture. They believe and boast that “ithu than da Tamil veeram’. (This is the real Tamil valour).