Raging bull

After the beef ban that made headlines last year, a different kind of cattle related debate is raging now. It is probably not getting any mention before the third page in many news papers outside Tamilnadu, but I have been watching it with the heart in my throat.

The Indian Supreme Court has banned Jallikattu, a bull taming sport typically played across the state today, the day of Mattu Pongal. Mattu Pongal is the day after Pongal or Sankranti, the harvest festival.

Pongal is a one day affair in most of India but is a big deal for the southern state of Tamilnadu. For many of us Tamils, it is bigger and dearer than the more popular Diwali. We celebrate it for 4 days.

Pongal starts with Bhogi, the day when old is thrown out making way for new. The second day, harvest of the season is celebrated. We cook freshly harvested rice and seasonal vegetables. Third day, is Mattu Pongal, where the cattle and live stock are celebrated. Final fourth day is Kanum Pongal, a day to meet elders and extended family and seek blessings and share greetings.

My grandmother was very particular about celebrating this festival. All my uncles and their families would gather in the large village house. Our little family of four (my sister wasn’t born then) would take a bus and alight at the nearest town and she would send a bullock cart to fetch us, to the village that was a few kilometres away.

After her passing, my parents continued the tradition and our family continued to make the annual trip to the village and celebrate with fire-wood cooked sweet rice, sugarcanes and other delicacies. On Mattu Poingal day, we would go around the village, visiting the houses our ancestors first lived in when they moved here, make offerings and perform the traditional dance of “kummi”  , singing songs that have been passed down through generations.

What added to the excitement was the trepidation with which we would tread and try to do our rounds as quickly as possible and get back home – as this was also the day of Jallikattu, the bull taming sport. There were bulls tied in every corner, fierce ones with large humps, rookies, older ones who still had some game left in them, all waiting to be let loose once the competition began. I would be terrified even before they were let loose – What was guarantee that the rope would hold?

Our Moms would rush us. “Quick, quick. We should get back home before they start”. You did not want to be caught in the mad rush that would follow unless you are the one trying to tame a bull.  So we would rush. Once safe within the walls of our home, we would race to the vantage points from where we could watch the bulls run, counting them and watching them with awe. The rookies would be unsure, trotting along not knowing what they should be. But the real heroes were the confident, handsome guys, to whom we humans were half-beings with two hoofs who held no place on earth when they were in rage.

That was the day of the cattle. We fed them specially cooked rice and worshipped them. We also recognised the fiery nature of the animal, reminding ourselves of the strength and power of the bull which humans have to tame for farming and transport.

But then those were also the days when we lived relatively closer to the earth.

When we use machines for farming and impregnate cows with artificial insemination, who has the time or need to appreciate bulls?

I have been reading the many articles and view points arguing for and against the custom being shared on social media.

The general argument against consists of:

  • It is not fair to use animals for sport and entertainment
  • Bulls are harmed or even killed during the sport
  • It is a dangerous sport

Those who are for it, argue that

  • Jallikattu is an age old practice that is part of Tamil culture
  • The purpose of the sport is to honour the relationship between the farmer and his bull
  • Bulls are not physically harmed. Men are not armed and they try to contain the bull with bare hands, which is probably more dangerous for the man than the animal

To me though it looks like one more practice which is being called into question due to our modern life style. For most of us, everything comes out of a packet and we don’t have a real connection with the source. The vast majority of us do not know what it is to care for and live with a cow. Livestock is a matter of animal husbandry.

No wonder we are confused.

Jallikattu is not as cruel a sport as it is portrayed. But the ugly fact is that majority do not appreciate the true spirit and intent of the sport. The Supreme Court stay order probably only hastens the disappearance of yet another connection which would have otherwise died a slow death or remained in a different form, driven by the egos of bull owners rather than the  respect for the animal force which we conquered centuries ago to become the supreme race on this planet.

PS: Here is a site that gives details on Jallikattu – http://www.jallikattu.in, which unfortunately also agrees with the above view – http://jallikattu.in/?cat=3

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