For most part of that night, I could not sleep. It was due to the excitement of going to Sakkudi for the much-awaited Jallikattu happening the next day. Sakkudi is the native village of Dr. P. Rajasekar, President, Tamilnadu Jallikattu Peravai – the man who has saved jallikattu from extinction and is still striving to restore it to its past glory – and also the last of the ‘big’ jallikattu events. Hence it is usually a mega event. I had been informed by my friends that this would be one of the largest communion of Jallikattu lovers, bulls and sportsmen. My phone was constantly ringing asking me about my whereabouts, friends informing me that they had already arrived at the venue with their bull and sportsmen enquiring whether I would be present to take pictures of them! I managed to catch some sleep late into the night.
Although Sakkudi was just about 10 kms from the hotel where I stayed, I had planned to start very early to beat the crowd. The receptionist was fast asleep when I woke him up. He did not even seem to notice me when I handed him the room key. I could feel a gush of fresh cool breeze blow across my face as I stepped outside the hotel. All along the way, I could see mini-trucks transporting bulls along with their keepers making their way to the Jallikattu. I could not help appreciate the fact that the Tamilnadu Goverment has laid out clearly defined stringent rules not just for the venue and games, but also on the mode of transport of the bull. Great emphasis is being paid to ensure that the bulls are not stressed, harmed or abused in any manner which has improved the quality of the game tremendously.
Along the way I stopped for a coffee break. Unlike Coimbatore where I live, Madurai does not seem to have flashy ‘bakeries’ or coffee shops. Madurai is still a traditional city with not many modern eateries around, especially beyond the city limits. Being adventurous with food, I love to try all kinds of food and make it a point to eat local food wherever my travel takes me. The shop-owner made me a wonderful cup of coffee. The shop was filled with the sweet aroma of what the locals called ‘appam‘ being fried. Although I was hesitant to eat a fried snack the first thing in the morning, the temptation was too much to resist. The shop owner handed me an appam placed on a piece of newspaper. I noticed a guy taking an appam, placing it in-between two sheets of newspaper and pressing it with all his might as if he was literally squeezing the life out of the appam. I knew that he was squeezing out the excess oil from the appam. Although I am used to seeing this being done, very sight of this being done to a sibling of the one in my hand made me wonder if I should risk my health eating such a snack. Not willing to eat it or throw it away, I brought it back to my car and left it there.
After a few minutes, the sweet “appam” aroma that now filled my car was tempting me again. Out of sight is out of mind! I took a bite of the appam and, oh dear, was it delicious! It was crunchy with mild sweetness and just melted in my mouth. I wished I had bought a few more.
As I turned my car into the single-lane road leading to Sakkudi, I noticed several policemen already on duty. One of them directed me to the parking area. As I drove by, I saw scores of mini-trucks, some of them off-loading their ‘cargo’ and some of them parked had already shed their ‘cargo’. I could see more number of mini-trucks arriving bursting on the seams with beaming faces of young men, boisterously calling out to others whom they seem to know. It was just beginning to dawn and already Sakkudi had come alive!
My friend, Mr. Balaji, had requested me several times that I arrive early so that he can receive me and find me a place in the Press Gallery. I had initially planned to go around the village grounds, looking for bulls that would be secured and relaxing, waiting for their turn to join the queue. I was quite taken back by surprise at the crowd already present at the venue and decided that I better go and get myself a good spot in the press gallery. The progress to the venue was excruciatingly slow as every Tom, Dick and Harry seemed to be rushing to the venue. The bulls also had to take the same route. I could see people rushing as if they were going to catch a plane; some having breakfast at the roadside eateries; kids running around; women peeping at us through their windows, families trudging along with boisterous kids. The whole place was just bursting with activity. The Sun also seemed to want a slice of the action as it was already out, giving me enough lighting to capture the hustle and bustle with my camera. It was a very interesting trek with so many things to see and absorb.
The lane abruptly opened up into a vast open field which was now littered with fire-engines, ambulances, animal-ambulances, police vehicles and a few private cars of VIPs. I could see a large contingent of policemen and police-women all over the place, some of them wearing their riot-control gear. With several politicians, including Ministers, and over a hundred-thousand spectators expected, presence of such a large police team was justified. The whole scene was intimidating. Most areas around the Stage, Vadivasal (entry point for bulls) and the VIP Galleries were already barricaded and secured. I was so relieved when Balaji came looking for me within minutes after I informed him of my arrival. After exchanging pleasantries, he wasted no time in taking me up to the press gallery. He rushed off to continue with his duties as soon as he saw me gain entry.
One quick glance around and I realised that most of the spectator galleries were already packed. The local TV channels and video channels were given separate platforms. Some videographers had already arrived and were testing their equipment. Suddenly there was a big roar from the crowd and we were surprised to see an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle with a video camera on board. A local TV channel had pressed into service an UAV for the first time and it was a sight to see. Most of the spectators were spellbound as it flew in the arena, hovering over the vadivasal and other select areas. As providence would have it, it suddenly crashed to the ground! The ground being covered with a few inches of coir pith, seemed to have softened the impact and the UAV seemed intact. I heard a comment going off, “Thats what happens if you show off too much!”.
The event started with Thalaivar Dr. Rajasekar declaring the event open. The first one to come in is usually the local Temple Bull. A small puja was done for the bull and the bull was let in. The Temple Bull was a real beauty – Pure speckless white with a reddish nose. The sportsmen are not allowed to embrace the bull. Being a temple bull, most sportsmen tried to touch it with their palms and then press the palms to their eyes in a traditional Hindu way of getting blessings.
This holy bull was followed by temple bulls from other temples and churches of the region – Yes, Churches! Jallikattu is a Tamil traditional game sans religions. Almost one-third of all Jallikattus being conducted today are on behalf of Churches and Churches of Tamilnadu also have the tradition of having temple bulls. In the past Jallikattus were held during Christmas celebrations also. But the new Jallikattu Act allows the event to be held only from January to May.
Sakkudi being known for excellent prizes for winners, usually attarcts a huge number of sportsmen and bulls. But what came as a surprise to me was the fact that over 600 sportsmen and 900 bulls were expected to participate that day. As the bulls were sent in one by one, the sportsmen tried to embrace the bull. The rules of the game were very simple – embrace the bull by its hump only for a length of 50 feet or for about 10 seconds, if the bull does stands still and cross the line. Holding on to its tail, horns, neck or legs or beating the bull were strictly prohibited and would invite instant disqualification.
Most of the bulls ran away with the prize during the first few minutes prompting the compere to taunt the sportsmen about their capabilities. He was a boisterous, quick-witted and energetic person. He won applause from the crowd for his instant wits, harmless taunts and timely comments. Seemingly taking cue from the compere, some bulls also stayed in the arena and taunted the sportsmen. Especially a bull with wide horns which seemed to just ‘flip’ anybody trying to touch its hump. It was so confident that it just stood there tauting the sportsmen to try and touch it. After sending several boys flying and somersaulting into the sky, it decided to walk off. What a majestic animal! It is always a sight to behold when a bull ‘plays’ in the arena and it is still better to see its keepers – who care for it 24×7, 365 days a year – celebrating the win!
Suddenly the compere announced that the forthcoming bull had a cash prize of Rs. 35,000 and a refrigerator! The whole venue was abuzz! The spectators lunged forward to catch a glimpse of the bull, the press people were on high alert and the sportsmen were fighting over each other to find a suitable place to confront the bull. Next the compere announced the name of the bull and its owner. There was another buzz now. This was purportedly a famous bull. Instantly the not-so-confident sportsmen moved to the barricades. They positioned themselves with one hand on the barricade and were ready to climb on to it if the bull charged! The centre of the arena was sparsely populated with ony a few daring boys out there. The compere was constantly taunting the boys to come in. The bull was let in to a thunderous applause. And lo! What a magnificent animal! It strode in fast, turned around to see if anyone is approaching, then went around seemingly taunting the boys. He seemed to know what he was doing and what he was capable of. A few sportsmen attempted to embrace the bull. Just a sudden turn and a start sent the boy scurrying. And when one or two managed to touch it, he just flipped them by just shirking his body. What a sight it was. Its keepers were frantically signaling to him to come out by waving their towels in the air. After a few rounds of taunting, he followed his keepers out. He walked out slowly and majestically as if he knew he was the star of the day. He walked out with the refrigerator and the huge cash prize of 35, 000 rupees.
The prizes given included cash, cycles, refrigerators, Goats, cell phones, kitchen utensils and gift-boxes.
After a few hours, I slipped out of the gallery as I wanted to record the happenings at the collection point – where the bulls are let out of the arena, Medical checkup for bulls, other festivities and other relaxing bulls. The first thing did after I got out was to have a glass of cool Jigardanda – a Madurai speciality. This was a small relief from the scorching heat. I saw that the whole village was celebrating. Vendors selling everything from ice-creams, jigardandas, sarbath, sugar-cane juice and other cool drinks to packed food. I could get a considerable number of interesting pictures around the venue and decided to call it a day.
Being a regular at most Jallikattus, I have seen, firsthand, the bond shared by the bull and its keepers. The keepers treat the bull as one of their family members. If we can share a close bond with a dog, a cat or even a ferret, what is wrong in these people loving their bulls. One can see kids playing with bulls, hugging them, kissing them and sharing their love. I cannot digest the fact that the wonderful bulls would have ended up in slaughter houses if not for Jallikattu events like these. Thousands of bulls have already been slaughtered, due to the drastic fall in the number of Jallikattu events and the stringent rules preventing organisers from getting permission to conduct a Jallikattu. From over 3000 events a year before 2006, it has now reduced to just about 25! Lack of Jallikattu events results in the fall of interest in the upkeep of bulls, which is an expensive affair for a rural household, leading them to sell their beloved bull off which eventually ends up at the slaughter houses!
As I drove back, I could forget the magnificient animal that walked calmly alongside its celebrating keepers. At the same time, I shudder to think what would be the fate of all these wonderful bulls if not for these few Jallikattu events still happening!