Travails of a tourist at Jallikattu!

Author : Balakumar Somu, balasomu@jallikattu.in, Phone: 9003368489

Seeing the live telecast of Jallikattu on TV for the past few years, I yearned to go and see the real action. I arrived at Avaniyapuram, Madurai, with my 9 year old son, Adityan, in tow. I had also brought my friend and his two teen-age sons who had recently come back from the US. All the way from Coimbatore to Madurai, I raved about the wonderful experience that I had during the Jallikattu that I had attended about two decades back. 

During my college days, I had the good fortune of experiencing Jallikattu in a village in Trichy district. It was my friend’s village. Four of us – all close friends – arrived at our friend Subramani’s house. The whole village wore a festive look and all the houses were freshly white-washed and decorated. In typical Tamil hospitality style, his family treated us like royalty. We celebrated the community Pongal in the village temple grounds. The whole village folk arrived, all of them dressed up in their new festival attire. After a gala breakfast there were competitions like cycling, kabaddi, pot-breaking etc for all age groups. The next day was Jallikattu. We were all so excited. We arrived at the temple ground which was surrounded by houses all around. Every Tom, Dick and Harry walked up to us and warned us that Jallikattu is a sport only for the able-bodied. It appeared as if the whole village was worried that the ‘town boys’ might get hurt and earn a bad reputation for their village. My friend assured them that we were only spectators. The whole village folk assembled. The youth were standing in the ground while all the kids, women and other men-folk stationed themselves safely on roof-tops or terraces of the houses. We could see people on roof-tops, terraces, some safely peeping from inside their house though windows or grill gates and with some kids climbing on to trees for a good view of the event.

After asking everybody to be safe, and announcing several times, the bulls were let loose through the temple-gate, one by one. Since there were no enclosures or barricades, the bulls ran freely. The youth tried to chase them down and get hold of the prize – cotton towel, silk towel, silk dhoti, cash or gold coins – tied in-between the horns. Those who were successful in ‘taming’ the bull, walked around proudly sporting the prize towel draped around their neck. After the last bull was tamed, the end of Jallikattu was announced. The whole village gathered to congratulate the winners.

My son was all excited to see Jallikattu. With all the new rules and regulations in place, I was sure that this would a safer and more enjoyable experience. 

The whole town was abuzz with activity when we arrived at Avaniyapuram at 7am. The crowd was still thin and hence we hoped to get a seat with a good view. 

The Jallikattu was to be held on a narrow street lined with houses on either sides. The street was barricaded on both sides and further protected by a metal net. The minute we entered the space between the barricade and the houses I had my first thought that this was going to be an interesting experience. With very little space to walk between the barricade and houses, we had to play trapeze artist crawling through poles that held the barricades, or jumping over them. Luckily for us the crowd was thin and hence we could move around without much difficulty. 

There was no gallery for people to sit. So people were sitting inside the little gap between the double barricades. Some generous house owners allowed a few people access to their rooftops. A friend of mine had arranged a roof-top for us. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the street. To reach the other side, I has to walk over 2 kilometers. Pulling my son along I extricated myself from the mess of barricades and took a very narrow filthy by-lane. After carefully crossing all kinds of filth that I do not wish to mention here, we reached the main street. By this time, Jallikattu had started and the police had totally closed off the access to the other side of the street. So we were stranded. And what a place to get stranded! We were on the road which was the exit route for the bulls coming out of the ‘arena’. Every other minute, I had to pull my son and run into a nearby shop for cover as bulls came charging towards us. The bull owners were running behind the bull with ropes to get hold of it. 

It was too dangerous for us to be anywhere near there, especially with kids. So I went to a nearby house and asked them if they could allow us to the terrace. The kind old lady asked her son to ask the house-owner living on the first floor. The landlord was not willing to let us in. So the old lady suggested we get on to the roof-top of the adjacent building. I sent my son, my friend and his sons to the roof-top and ensured that they were safely seated. Being a freelance photographer, I decided to walk around and get some good pictures of the raging bulls.

I went back to the exit-street to get some good eye-level photos. The whole street was crowded and I could only see the heads of spectators. When a raging bull is sighted, everybody ran for cover and the street would be cleared for a split second. I had to get my picture and then run for cover within that split second. Very soon, I got fed up. Not only could I not get good shots, my feet was covered with filth that I trampled on when I ran for cover. So I decided to try some other spot. I walked along and spotted a few foreign tourists standing on a tractor trailer meant for police personnel. The police were kind enough to let me also get on to the tractor. I took a few pictures of bulls running out. Still I was nowhere near the bull-taming arena. So I got down from the tractor and walked some more distance till I reached the end of the street on which the bull taming was being held. I squeezed myself into a small gap between the tractor and a metal barricade. There were people jammed on the other side of the barricade. The barricade just near me did not have the metal sheet in the middle. So it was sort of open and provided an excellent opportunity for people to peep through it to get a good open view of the bulls. Looked like I had got the perfect spot to shoot a ground level picture of a bull with tamers in tow. This was the street corner. The bull had to run straight towards us and then turn to its right and go on towards the exit. So I could get bulls running straight at me! I could also notice some bulls ‘returning’ back to the arena. There was this one bull which did not seem to want to go out. It just stood there about 50 feet from me, loitering and threatening anyone attempting to throw a rope to get hold of it. It went around poking at the people behind the barricades through the metal net. Slowly it came in my direction. Instinctively, I moved a few steps back. Luckily for me, it was more interested in the people peeping through the metal barricade. In a flash everybody behind the barricade ran away and all of a sudden it was just a big open hole. The bull squeezed through the hole and ran free into the next street! 

When another bull also found its way to the other street through the same route, I decided it was safer for me to be on the tractor trailer. Again I requested for access to the police tractor and they were kind enough to let me on. Finally I got a few pictures. I went back to check on my son and friend’s family. They were still on the same roof-top where I left them, but there were over 100 people on the roof-top now, including a Swedish couple who were on a tour of South India. 

We decided we had enough of action for the day and we started heading back to our car. Now my son wanted to use the toilet. Oh My God! This day was turning into a nightmare now. With thousands of spectators pouring in to see the Jallikattu action, it somehow did not seem to dawn on the authorities that these people may need rest rooms! As a result, we could see people using the roadsides as open-air toilets! We were not used to that and so I had to beg a house owner to let my son use his toilet. 

On my way back, I wondered about what had changed in the two decades that had elapsed between my first Jallikattu experience and the one I experienced today. With the passage of time, new technological strides that our country has made, all the new rules and regulations, all talk about spectator safety, bull-tamer safety and safety of the bull, should the sport not have improved? Instead, the quality and safety of the sport seems to have greatly deteriorated. Have the so-called animal-rights activists and the authorities ended up turning the enjoyable safe sport into a more dangerous one? 

I wish we could rewind the clock back to the good old days with the same old simple form of Jallikattu which was safer for the bull-tamers and spectators and also less stressful for the bulls.  

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