From pastoral to commercial

Published : Jan 20, 2016 12:30 IST

LITERATURE of the later Sangam period has a few references to yeruthu thazhuvudhal , or hugging of bulls. The Tamil scholar V. Arasu said that a chapter in Ilango Adigal’s epic Silappathikaram and seven verses in the section “Mullaikali” of Kalithogai , both contemporary works of this period, refer to such events more as a social occasion to display pride and valour than as an entertainment sport. “Early Sangam works such as Kurunthogai and Nattrinai had no references to this activity,” he said.

In “Aikkiyar (shepherd women) Kuravai”, a chapter in Silappathikaram , there is a mention of the event. But Kalithogai gives a detailed reference to it. It says that Aayar girls (cattle-rearers), who lived in “mullai” (forest and adjoining lands), one of the five land classifications in Tamil literature, used to rear sturdy bulls and take pride in them. “These girls yearned to marry those valorous youths of their tribe who subjugated the bulls in yerkole (bull-taming),” Arasu said. (The five land classifications are kurinji (hilly areas), mullai (forests), narutham (farmlands), neithal (coast) and paalai (desert)).

Romanticising valour and linking it with love formed the essence of Tamil literature. Kalithogai detailed this pastoral lifestyle and called the traits of valour and love culture ( agamarabhu ). In fact, Verse 102 in “Mullaikali” claims that as per the wishes of the Aayar girls, the youth tamed the bulls and married the girls.

Arasu, however, said these literary references should not be construed as conclusive historical evidence of an event that had happened in a particular period of time. “Of the 2,200-odd songs in Sangam literature, a few, such as Kalithogai, and Silappathikaram , mention this activity,” he said.

But only a little concrete evidence is available of this event in pastoral society, which later became a sporting activity with the emergence of feudalism. A seal belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation depicts a ferocious bull throwing several men or a single man (according to two different interpretations) in the air as they/he try to control it. This seal, made of stone, is on display at the National Museum in New Delhi and is dated to 2000 B.C.

Hero stone A rare hero stone depicting a man fighting a bull was found in Pudragounderpalayam village in Salem district in Tamil Nadu and is displayed at the Government Museum in Salem. An inscription under the sculpture says one Kour Kangan Karuvan was killed while playing with the bull ( erudhu vilayadi pattan ). J. Barnabas of the Salem Historical Society said the hero stone, dating back to the Nayaka period, was erected by Periya Payal, son of the deceased, and was found in 1976.

Scholars insist that neither history nor literature refers to bull-taming as a sporting event. “It was one of the manifestations of a way of life that explains the intrinsic bondage between a society and cattle and their mutual benevolence. And it was more of a pastoral activity confined to one particular social group and area to showcase its valour and pride,” Arasu said. “It has never been related to Pongal festivities,” he said. Jallikattu, he said, was not as cruel as the bullfighting in Spain or Latin American countries.

Various sociocultural influences over a period of time had played a role in transforming yerkole or yeru thazhuvudhal of one particular anthropological group into a sporting activity, which was later assimilated and appropriated by other groups. It is claimed without concrete evidence that the event was converted into an adventurous sport during the later Chola period, when feudalism became entrenched.

Today it is called jallikattu, a Telugu nomenclature, possibly an impact of the rule of the Nayaka kings of the Vijayanagar kingdom, some five centuries ago. The Nayaka kings promoted it as an event for their soldiers during peacetime, with money as bait. Since then it has emerged as a major entertainment, confined to the erstwhile undivided revenue districts of Madurai, Thanjavur and Tiruchi.

The writer D. Ravikumar, general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), said that no ancient activity could be linked to Tamil nationalism, which is a recent phenomenon. “There was no geographical and political identity as Tamil Nadu during the Sangam age. Tamil as a language remained common for them,” he said.

He pointed out that the activity became the preserve of one particular land-holding caste group in the immediate past and was promoted and propagated more for its caste supremacy than for anything else. But the involvement of the state has democratised the event to a greater extent. “Today, Dalits are not only tamers but also owners of bulls,” he said.

“Where is culture in it?” asked A. Kadir, the Madurai-based social worker and a Dalit activist. This pastoral phenomenon became the preserve of Piramalai Kallars and Maravas besides a few other backward caste groups over a century ago. “Although it is being promoted today more as an event of Tamil identity, it carries shameful traces of casteism. True. Two decades back no Dalit would have ever dared to touch a bull in the ring although Dalits are tamers today. Culture should encompass virtues and not inhuman practices,” he said.

Of late, the event has got commercialised. Big money has come into play.

Gone are the days when the animals carried coin bags around their necks for the tamers to snatch. (In fact, the term jalli is a derivative of salli , meaning coins of smaller denomination.) The successful tamers of today are given costly prizes such as washing machines, refrigerators, steel almirahs, stainless steel utensils and motorbikes and even big cash awards, all sponsored by leading companies. “They even offer ‘man of the ring’ awards to outstanding tamers,” said an animal rights activist.

Hoardings in and around the venue of the event have a premium price tag. A few firms even promote teams of tamers by making them wear vests with their logos. “It is crass commercialisation today,” the activist said. A leading motorbike manufacturer has displayed a life-size bull and a tamer at its showroom in Madurai city.

Another recent development is the entry of political parties into the arena. However, Dr P. Rajasekar, president of the Tamilnadu Jallikattu Peravai, said political parties had failed the bull-rearers this time. “Political parties blaming one another will forget people’s sentiments once the Assembly elections are over,” he said.

There is a sordid side to the episode. According to a rough estimate, around 20 per cent of the 1,500 bulls in the districts where jallikattu is organised were sold to slaughter houses after the Supreme Court banned the event in 2014.

The rearers said that they were unable to maintain the bulls as Rs.150 to Rs.200 was needed every day to feed each animal. It is feared that the court ban will discourage the breeding of indigenous bulls such as the Kangayam and Pulikulam breeds.

Arasu, however, said the negativity attached to the event (cruelty to a performing animal), smacked of a colonial mindset. Many traditional practices such as aanirai kavarthal (stealing of cattle), which were in vogue once upon a time, would be seen as ridiculous today. “But events such as jallikattu could be retained. No event or sport is free from commercialisation in a globalised world. A systemic failure of the regulatory mechanism of an event should not put an end to a traditional practice,” he said.

By Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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