Escape from Tamil Nadu: The curse of jallikattu

Anti-PETA, pro-jallikattu poster in Madurai

Anti-PETA, pro-jallikattu poster in Madurai

We had only wanted some beer. A streak of unlucky timing had left us high and dry throughout our trip in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India with strict alcohol regulations. After a long day, we endeavored to score cool refreshment near our hotel in Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s third-largest city, and carefully researched potential targets upon check-in. But when we arrived at Gravity Bar, a ‘restolounge’ on the top floor of a nearby shopping mall, a sign on the door greeted us:


..and the door was locked. Immensely disappointed and getting desperate, we asked some guys peddling smartphone covers about the nearest TASMAC (Tamil Nadu’s state-run alcohol shops). Impervious to our frowns, they gleefully informed, “Closed today and tomorrow because of jallikattu!” Where had I heard that word before…

Jallikattu is the traditional Tamil sport of bull wrestling, a wild competition where a crowd of men encircle a zebu bull and attempt to hold on to its hump for as long as possible until the bull is forced to stop moving. The bulls that ‘lose’ are castrated and used for agricultural purposes, while the wilder un-tamable animals are kept as breeding stock—in essence a kind of genetic selection rodeo to produce stronger animals. The custom has reportedly been practiced by Tamils for over two millennia, but was banned in India in 2011 on grounds of animal cruelty after years of campaigning by PETA and other animal-rights activists.

Part of our alcoholic misfortune in India had been caused by our ill-timed trip during Pongal, a Tamil new years and harvest celebration that stretches over four days and includes a dry day or two. Jallikattu is an important part of Pongal, and the government ban had been causing strife every year during this particular period. On Monday, 16th January, while we were combing every nook and cranny of Puducherry for booze, 32 people were arrested for releasing 10 bulls in an illegally-organised bull run. This set off a large protest in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s largest city, as well as smaller ones throughout the state. We happened to catch one in Tiruchirappalli on Tuesday, as a crowd of young guys marched across a bridge chanting and carrying signs scrawled with the words “WE WANT JALLIKATTU”.

I hadn’t thought much about it until we learned about the TASMAC closures, but on our short evening stroll through Madurai we’d also seen barricaded roads and groups of guys holding town hall-style meetings on the street, illuminated by mobile phone screens. Back at the hotel we checked the news, and it turned out that Madurai’s largest protest was being held just a couple kilometres away. The dry day was inconvenient, we thought, but checking out a protest might at least inject some excitement into our rather frustrating trip.

Jallikattu protest in Tiruchirappalli

Protesters in Madurai meeting with local politicians to discuss the ban on jallikattu

When we made our way to the protest the next day, I quickly figured out why the government had locked down alcohol sales: Even sober, people were pretty nuts. Behind police barriers, packs of young men raced down the street on motorcycles and scooters, some standing on the backs of the bikes and screaming while drivers revved the motors. At the end of the road, what looked like hundreds of students had gathered into a crowd, pushing and yelling excitedly—some carrying signs, some small bags of drinking water or plates of biryani that they effortlessly spooned into their mouths with their hands while jostling about.

I didn’t anticipate how excited a couple hundred young Tamils would be when two foreigners walked into their protest. After just poking our  heads over the edge of the crowd, people went crazy. They laughed, pointed and pushed, and suddenly we were thrust through rows of frenzied young men into a centre ring where hundreds of young women sat. Everyone turned; thousands of eyes were on us as the crowd roared with delight. Someone beckoned us to the front and tried to hand us a microphone, obviously expecting us to yell out something like “WE LOVE JALLIKATTU!!” Mook became agitated and quickly refused, insisting that we didn’t really know anything about the sport and had just come to watch.

Madurai jallikattu protest

The inner circle of the Madurai jallikattu protest

They weren’t very happy about this, and continued to press: “You want jallikattu, right??” We repeated again and again as we futilely tried to creep away that we’d never seen jallikattu and couldn’t really comment. “We’re neutral!” became Mook’s mantra. I wasn’t about to tell a swarm of peaceful-but-wild young protestors that I thought their cherished traditional sport was shit, so I tried to reason with myself. I’d only seen jallikattu in a few short clips online, and it looked kind of like bronco riding at a rodeo. And rodeos weren’t so bad, were they?

Somebody threw a bag of water at Mook’s head, narrowly missing him.

Obviously time to go—we pointed at the crowd and they parted for us, but when we tried to exit towards what I thought would be the other side of the protest, the wall of people was impenetrably thick. Thanks to my stature I couldn’t see a thing, but Mook easily peered over the crowd. “It just keeps going… I can’t see the end.”

A guy with a notebook managed to fight through the jungle of sweaty limbs to our area of the mosh pit, and proceeded to rally off journalist questions in pretty good English. “Where are you from? What are your names? What do you think of jallikattu? How do you think it compares to Spanish bullfighting? Why did you come to the protest?” Mook wasn’t having any of it, so I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible. In the centre of such a frenzy, how to stay inoffensive without having our words twisted and becoming international pro-jallikattu spokespeople?

Like any good journalist, the guy just made up his own quote. “So you mean you didn’t know much about jallikattu, but you came to the protest to learn why the Tamil people feel so passionately about it?”

Yes! Sounded good to me. We thanked him and pushed to leave.

Navigating a barrage of selfie requests, we were able to make our way back and onto the street. There, even more groups of high-strung college kids were heading into the jallikattu throng. They pressed us to join them, or at least pose for pictures with their protest signs, so we made our way out of the madness with a healthy stride and as little eye-contact as possible. It probably wasn’t the wisest decision for two sore thumbs to head into a large protest that we didn’t necessarily agree with, but it was still an intense and exciting experience.

Later I checked the news: That day, throughout the state over seven million people had actively protested PETA and the jallikatu ban.

After over a week in Tamil Nadu and more than enough of jallikattu, we were definitely ready to leave. That evening we booked a room at guesthouse just over the state border in Kerala, a place we hoped had no protests and more bars.

The next morning we went down to ask the hotel reception how to catch a bus to Kumily, Kerala.

“No buses today!” chirped a lungi-wearing man loitering at reception. “Auto [rickshaw], taxi, buses, trains—everyone in Tamil Nadu is on strike out of solidarity with the protest,” he explained excitedly. Still that fucking protest! We really are cursed to spend the rest of our lives in this insane place with no alcohol, I lamented dramatically to myself.

But the man was thrilled about jallikattu’s rippling effects. “Yesterday it was just students, and today—everyone! I also had plans to go to Kumily, but when the buses start up again at 6pm, I’m going to catch one back to Chennai and join the protests there,” he said. “So.. the bus drivers are on strike but the buses will start running again at 6pm,” I probed. “Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, “It’s going to be crowded—you’d better watch out.”

The owner of the Kumily guesthouse said he’d heard buses from Madurai were still running, so we had to go see for ourselves. If we’d learned anything during our stressful time in India, it was that information was only reliable if you checked for yourself. We explored our other options, of which there were none, and decided to set off for the bus station early. It turned out to be easy to hail a rickshaw, so they weren’t completely on strike, and we hoped the buses might be running normally as well.

The rickshaw ride was slow going because, as we cruised, the driver would stop and point out any jallikattu demonstration he saw. There were a lot of them. No longer just university students, but grown men, women and children were all out in force, shouting slogans and holding signs of all kinds protesting PETA and the jallikattu ban. All the shops were closed and the roads were unusually free of traffic, instead filled with protesters. It seemed that the only people who weren’t demonstrating were the bored police officers camped out near their barricades.

As we crossed a bridge heading towards the centre of Madurai, the auto driver pointed into the distance and yelled back, “Train! Train!” About a kilometre away was a railway bridge flooded with of protestors. To the north side of the river bank was a blue passenger train, motionless and unable to proceed as people swarmed around it. Hundreds of students had stopped the train; it was an incredible sight.

After some sweat and toil we reached the bus station, but the buses sat silent and still. Just as the guy at the hotel had said, nothing would move until at least 6pm, when the police would try and force protesters along the highways to pack up for the day. To illustrate their might, a group had barricaded the road outside of the bus station and weren’t letting anything but motorbikes through. Drums beat out a festive rhythm as men, women and children chanted and danced, with the occasional “Jallikattu!!” ringing out over all the commotion. It was only noon, so we found a place in the shade as far away from the protest as possible, and settled in for a long wait.

It was hot, and boring. To pass the time, we struck up a gesture conversation with three old ladies in colourful saris who showed us their hand-poked tattoos. Everything was closed so there was no food, but kind strangers filled our bellies with biryani, nuts, and milk bread with jam.

Occasionally, gangs of young guys riding three to a motorbike would speed through, circling around the parking lot and screaming like school was out for-ever. The music outside fluctuated in intensity before taking a lunch break, then starting up with renewed gusto in the afternoon. Nobody at the bus station looked particularly impressed.

At 4pm we started to ask around about the buses. Someone said they’d probably start at 6pm. Someone else said the first round of buses would try and set out but they weren’t sure if a second round of buses would follow. A student we met said that one town on the way to his destination was rumoured to have particularly large protests, so he wasn’t sure if the bus would make it through at all.

None of this instilled much confidence in us, so we picked up our backpacks and set out in search of a taxi. Outside of the bus station, we met a guy who recruited his friend to chauffeur us from Madurai to Kumily for 4000 rupees, which we negotiated down to 3200 (44€). We thought it might be steep for the 130km drive—a journey which usually takes around two-and-a-half hours—but fair considering they’d have to take a few detours to avoid demonstrations and road blocks along the highways.

Needless to say, neither we nor they could have imagined just how many detours we’d be forced to take. The main roads were blocked in nearly every village and town along the way, sometimes with metal barriers, but more often with tree branches and bricks, or village sit-ins. It was a “peaceful protest”, but people were manic; at many barriers no cars were allowed through, and at others vehicles were let past one-by-one as protestors screamed and hollered like they were possessed by jallikattu demons.

This forced traffic to take long detours through the towns and countryside, down narrow alleyways and sometimes even off-road. During one detour we hit a smaller group of rowdy adolescent boys who, high on power, wielded palm branches as weapons and refused to let even motorbikes through unless each and every driver professed their love for jallikattu.

Trying to find our way back to the main road after taking a detour

Tough going, especially for smaller cars

After encountering a few particularly fervent groups, our driver and his friend stuck privacy shades on the backseat windows, then ordered us to lay down. They didn’t speak much English, so we couldn’t figure out if they didn’t want to be considered taxi strike-breakers, if they didn’t want to work up the protesters by having foreigners in the car, or if it was something worse.

As we passed through so many tiny towns that were passionately up-in-arms about jallikattu, I began to feel kind of sorry for them. These were villages full of farmers living relatively austere lives out in the countryside. It is in these places that the 2000-year-old tradition of bull wrestling probably means a lot—more so than in the urban sprawls of Chennai, where the protests began. If they want to do their stupid jallikattu, why not just let them?

Six hours after leaving Madurai, our heroic drivers managed to deliver us over the border into Kerala. As we climbed up the mountain towards Kumily, the refreshing scent of rain filled the van and droplets decorated the windshield. It felt like we had entered a new world—one free from the dust and confusion of Tamil Nadu, and free from jallikattu.

Or so we thought. On our second night in Kumily we hit up one of the three hotel bars in town—an enter-though-the-back-door kind of place that smelled like stale beer and was illuminated electric green in-between frequent power outages. After the 10pm last call, a guy approached and requested selfies—not unusual—then proceeded to grab my arm and lift it into the air, yelling, “SUPPORT JALLIKATTUUUuu!”

I grimaced and wondered if, out of the dozens of people who took our pictures at the Madurai protest, someone had posted a photo or two on Facebook and garnered us a bit of unwanted publicity. We rushed back to our guesthouse and did some cursory searching but couldn’t find anything.

While digging through Facebook, I stumbled upon very few anti-jallikattu posts—understandable at a time when Indian animal rights activists have been receiving harassment and death threats. But there were a few out there. One was a video (Facebook link) that very convincingly documented abuse, at least to anyone who possesses some notion of what cruelty to animals is. It was difficult to watch the bulls being bitten and prodded with sticks, force-fed alcohol then be harassed for hours throughout the tournament. I began to think, video aside, that in essence the sport involves cornering and terrorising a naturally mild-mannered animal just for thrills. If that were done to a human, surely it would be considered psychological abuse?

Throughout the protests, those who condone jallikattu said they consider the ill treatment of the animals negated by the fact that they’re worshiped by Tamils. But as a staunch non-believer, to me it’s very obvious that animals don’t think of their revered status as a great trade-off for being attacked. Many people we spoke to even tried justifying the sport by comparing it to Spanish bullfighting, declaring jallikattu to be okay because “we don’t kill the bull”. This illustrates to me that there is actually little consideration about the welfare of the animals—it’s only life or death that counts. But what’s better, a life of abuse, or death?

From what I could gather, jallikattu is also teeming with masculine overtones, from its roots as a display of bravery, to its pseudo-benevolent abuse, like a man who beats his wife or children for their “own good” because he “loves them so much”. In 2017, we are now very familiar with watching men lash out when they feel they’re being emasculated or having their ‘rights’ taken away, and the protests themselves reeked of entitlement and machoism, with little interest in education, debate or compromise.

As a casual traveller who has only been in India for a short time it’s difficult to make an educated observation, but there seems to be a great gap in awareness of and interest in animal welfare here compared to other countries. From the goat I saw being dragged forcefully down the street by its ears, to the supposedly revered cows at Madurai’s famous temple that were tied up very tightly and covered in their own shit, to the immense number of starving and diseased stray dogs moping around on every street, this appears to be a country that has yet to update their views on animal welfare.

With that in mind, PETA and other animal welfare organisations may have their hearts in the right place, but I think they’re approaching the problem in the wrong way by trying to take animals out of the system without changing the system itself. PETA is also pushing to ban the parading of elephants at temples. A noble cause, but surely there are other, bigger pieces of tofu to fry in a place like this. For example, what about the numerous tourist-oriented elephant parks I’ve seen advertised? Directly targeting the customs of highly-traditional people without successful education about why they should not treat animals like machines, objects or toys will only create resistance and animosity towards the animal rights movement—something PETA does well.

In the end, it’s obvious that there is much beneath the surface of the jallikattu ordeal that I can’t comment about because I know little of Indian or Tamil politics and culture. But after much forced deliberation over whether I am “with jallikattu” or not, I can say for certain that I don’t agree with the sport, and think people are deluding themselves if they believe their love for the animals somehow justifies the ill treatment they get put through for some testosterone-fuelled thrills. Sorry guys, there you have it. But even as a passionate animal lover, I have difficulty standing behind PETA in this situation as well.

At the time of writing, the cogs of bureaucracy are turning and the Tamil Nadu government managed to push through a bill that allowed for a jallikattu event last weekend (22nd January) where three men died participating in their beloved sport (no word on any injuries the bulls may have suffered). Meanwhile, protests in Chennai turned violent after being hijacked by ‘antisocial elements’ with ‘vested interests’ who refuse to stop protesting until the jallikattu ban is completely lifted. India’s supreme court is to hear pleas from animal-rights activists while other states are ramping up efforts to overthrow bans on their own animal-related sports and traditions.

Personally, much like the zebus, I never want to have to hear about jallikattu again.


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