The Insane Bull Riders of Tamil Nadu, India

  PortoNovo KajaNazimudeen
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The Insane Bull Riders of Tamil Nadu, India

Photo: i am karna

Tens of thousands throng the streets in the town of Alanganallur, and the hush that falls signals something is happening. Suddenly, a path is ripped through the sea of people by the beast – the juggernaut – all have come to see. Garlanded with flowers and coloured powder ( gulal ), the bull charges from its human corridor into the open bent on wreaking havoc with horns sharpened to deadly points. The competitors swallow their nerves, ready to leap on the animal already scattering bodies.

It’s all in the game: Competitors can expect to bite the dust and worse

Photo: i am karna

The sport is Jallikattu, an ancient form of bull-baiting or -wrestling that takes place each January in the villages of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu as part of the harvest festival, Pongal. The aim for the young men who participate is to tame highly agitated bulls using only their bare hands. Many are flung to the dirt and the unlucky are gored. This is a bull’s game. Unlike the Spanish running of the bull with which Jallikattu is often compared, no weapons are permitted and the bulls are not killed.

Armed and ready: The bulls are the ones bearing whetted weapons

Photo: Geert Henau

Hemingway, however, would surely have been satisfied. As shows of machismo go, Jallikattu takes some topping. The boldest men jump on the beasts’ humps or grip their horns to gain some control over their bovine opponents. Even the less gutsy trying to grab hold of the bulls’ tails brave being kicked or trampled by rampaging hooves. The courage of some of the youths who step up has a Dutch flavour too, with alcohol like local coconut liquor drunk to supplement the testosterone.

The brave and the bold: Everyone is keen to tame themselves a bull

Photo: Murali Alagar

Why do men risk life and limb in Jallikattu? The same reason most sportsmen take part in their game of choice. The wranglers who can ride – or get dragged by – the bulls to the finish receive prizes like cash, traditional wear for men ( lungis ) and household goods, while in days gone by, successful men may have been rewarded with wives for their feats of daring. Then of course there is the prestige. Tamil people are fanatical about Jallikattu, and it’s a tradition that dates back thousands of years.

Fame and fortune: Lures for young farmers keen to prove their worth

Photo: Murali Alagar

Yet despite its popularity, Jallikattu is by no means loved and adored by all. Animal rights lobbyists get bullish about it for one. More humane than Spanish bullfighting Jallikattu may be – unsurprising in a country where the cow is sacred – but still it’s cruel for the animals. Hemmed in by masses of uproarious humans, it’s no wonder they get mad and cause bloodshed – particulalry when you hear bull owners have previously been reported using violent means to make their charges see red.

Cruel and barbaric: Opponents insist the sport is harmful to man and beast

Photo: Murali Alagar

However, it’s the people rather than the bulls that are most likely to get seriously hurt in Jallikattu. Over the past two decades, almost two hundred have been killed in the sport, with those behind the makeshift bamboo barriers in almost as much danger as the competitors. Following the death of a 14-year old spectator who was gored in 2004, Jallikattu was briefly banned, and remains under close scrutiny. Nevertheless, a sport so instilled in the blood of Tamil villagers will take some stopping.

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