Hoary tradition

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

THE Tamil Nadu governments main argument before the Supreme Court when it sought a review of the courts order banning jallikattu was that it was a 400-year-old tradition. While this may be true of bullfights in its present form, which is believed to have been introduced during the rule of Thirumalai Nayak in Madurai (1623-1659), the bull-centred sport itself has a much longer history. There is literary evidence to establish its existence in Tamil Nadu during the much-celebrated Sangam Age (300 B.C. to A.D. 300).

Recent findings have traced the ancient origins of jallikattu-type bullfight. A stone seal that captures a bullfight scene was found in Mohenjodaro, now in Pakistan, and is on display at the National Museum in New Delhi. Experts have dated it to 2000 B.C., and it clearly shows that the sport was an important feature of the Indus Valley Civilisation. In addition, rock paintings discovered recently at Karikkiyur in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu and dated to 2000 B.C.-1500 B.C. confirm that sports involving bulls are nearly 4,000 years old. There are many references in Sangam literature to the significant place that bulls and cows enjoyed in the rich agrarian society of that time. There is also mention of Aanirai Kavarthal (capturing cows).

The first thing kings and chieftains did while invading a country was to take possession of its cattle wealth. Silappathikaram (Epic of the Anklet) of the Sangam Age, bracketed with four other outstanding literary works in Tamil as Aymperum Kaappiangal (Five Great Epics), gives a graphic account of the living conditions of the Aayars (those who rear cows) and also states that for them bullfight was not merely a sport but a wedding-related testing ground to assess the calibre of the youth. People gathered in large numbers and enjoyed the sport, the work says.

Seven of the 15 poems in Mullai Kali (a part of Kalithogai, another work of the period) have been devoted to Eru Thazhuvuthal (taming of a bull to win the hand of a girl). For the boy, a win in the event was a matter of pride and a symbol of valour, and for the girl, it was a reassurance that she had chosen the right partner. A pass in this test was a must even if a boy and a girl were in love with each other.

A Mullai Kali poem says an Aayar girl will not touch, even in her next birth, a person who fails to humble the bull. Although members of royal families and wealthy landholders filled their cattle sheds with high-breed bulls, it was the women in their households who reared these bulls and made them competition-fit by ensuring rich food and rigorous training.

While in most cases of Eru Thazhuvuthal the village head offered his daughter in marriage to the winner, mass bullfights were also held to choose grooms for other eligible girls of the village. Although bullfight has survived for many centuries, it has taken several forms and its purpose has also changed. It was during Thirumalai Nayaks rule that the sport appears to have received the greatest patronage.

Unlike in the early period, jallikattu, the most popular of the present forms of bullfight, is no more wedding-related. Instead, gifts in the form of cash and jewellery are tied to the bull and the one who tames it gets them. Besides, the role of Aayars in the sport has reduced significantly and new social groups control it now. Although the secular nature of the sport is largely maintained, in some places local beliefs do play a role. Despite the changes, jallikattu is celebrated with zeal during Pongal.

With the advent of the Dravidian movement in the early 20th century, Pongal became known as the Thamizhar Thirunaal (Tamil festival). The movement, which went forward on the slogan of a separate Dravida Nadu, sought to rediscover the past glories of the land whose liberation it demanded. Its search for identities ended in the Tamil language, with its long and glorious past, and Sangam literature, whose secular content highlighted love and valour as the defining characteristics of Tamil life.

The movements many periodicals brought out special editions in celebration of Pongal. (Until then Tamil magazines mostly published special numbers only on Deepavali.) Along with Pongal, jallikattu also received wide publicity, figuring in novels and short stories. (Vaadivaasal, a novella by the veteran writer C.S. Chellappa, gives an excellent account of the sport in all its dimensions, social, economic and ethical.)

S. Viswanathan
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