In Kalithogai, a classical collection of Tamil poems from the Sangam period (spanning c.400 BCE to 300 CE), one can find the following lines describing the electric atmosphere at a bull-taming sport:
The lines talk about the dust in the air, the able physique of the tamers, the ferocious bulls stooping to conquer, and the excitement of the spectators. This is said to be one of the earliest references to the sport of eru thazhuval, which translates to “embracing the bull”. (Source: http://bit.ly/2ltNuIV ) The sport also goes by other names such as manju virattu, eruthu kattu, and kaalai anaiththal.
Today, Jallikattu, the modern variation of the sport conducted usually on the second and third day of the harvest festival Pongal, is a part of the Tamil agrarian community. In all versions of the sport, men try to cling on to the bull’s hump for a certain amount of time or till the bull crosses a finish line. If no man succeeds in doing this, the bull is declared the winner. The sport, for the breeders and cattle owners, serves as a means to find the strongest bulls in a community. These bulls then become the studs that mate with the cows in the village to produce strong and sturdy calves.
The term Jallikattu or Sallikattu is combination of the words salli (coins) and kattu (package). In earlier versions of the sport, a bag of coins was tied to the bull’s horns to be taken by the winner—that is, whoever manages to subdue the bull long enough.
Apart from its mention in Sangam literature, there are other references to bull taming being a part of Tamil history, such as the seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which take this sport back at least 4,500 years. A cave painting was found in Kalluthu Mettupatti near Madurai that depicts a man trying to subdue a bull. At Karikkiyur, a village in the Nilgiris, rock paintings said to be over 3,500 years old reveal that bullfighting was conducted even way back then.
Traditionally, bull-taming was the test that would prove a man’s virility. Any man who successfully competed in the sport was considered a hero and could win the bull-owner’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
Ancient Tamil literature speaks of cattle with great respect and explores the depth and nuances of the animal-man relationship. Cattle was equated to wealth, and till today, rearing and taming bulls is a passion for many who grow up watching and training for this sport.
It is no secret that humanity has always been utterly dependent on animals for its existence. From providing us sustenance to the use of vellum to make parchment in the early days, we have always lived in close proximity to the animal world. For many Tamil people, Jallikattu is part of a precious heritage that they have been fighting to keep alive. While there are those who question the toxic masculinity and casteism the tradition is steeped in, there are others who feel that this sport is the only way to keep the native cattle breeds from going extinct. Amid all the uproar on the continuation of the sport, for now we will have to contend with the fact that the debate of animal rights versus our manipulation of the animal world will be an ongoing one.