No one really knows when the ox race in Kerala, popularly known as Maramadi and Kalapoottu, became a part of the cultural tradition in the state. But the Supreme Court put a stop to it in May 2014 when it said, “bulls cannot be used as performing animals” anywhere in the country.
Despite the ban, Kalapoottu continued to be held in Malappuram district for almost a full year before the state animal welfare board imposed stringent restrictions on it.
Demanding the revival of this traditional sport, enthusiasts now want the ban lifted in the district as the season is underway. In the past, Kalapoottu has been held between June and February.
“We human beings participate in different sports, why can’t animals? Moreover, you kill animals in mass numbers to eat, how come that is not animal cruelty?” asks 60-year-old Edassery Aboobacker Haji, who owns a few bullocks and had been actively participating in the race since he was 16 years old.
Haji claims that contrary to allegations of mistreatment, the oxen are treated with great love and care. “We consider them as our own children. We follow a proper diet and treatment for them. There would be at least three persons to take care of a pair of oxen. Their shed would be cleaned regularly, and we used to give them a bath daily after an oil massage. They would be allowed to play in the river or the pond for exercise. We would take care of all that lovingly. Then how can they say we are being cruel?” he asks.
“It was a symbol of farmers’ tradition, unity and prosperity. There was no money involved in the races. The winners would get only small trophies. But to look after the oxen is expensive. It wasn’t written down anywhere that we should do this. But we still did it because it was part of our family tradition,” he adds.
Vijayan K, another farmer who participated in the races said the sport also promoted religious harmony in Malappuram and Kozhikode.
“Oxen owners from all religions, irrespective of caste or political affiliation, joined together and participated in the races. There was a feeling of oneness among farmers. Those races were our legacy and were the farmers’ main sport,” Vijayan said.
Haji says that during the ox-race season they would be made to run for a maximum of 30 seconds a day. But in the summer months of May and April, the oxen would rest.
“Since childhood we have lived with the cattle and other domestic animals in our homes. We are completely attached to them,” Haji added.
Since the ban on the races, these men say there is no work for the oxen and they have to take care of them at high cost.
“We can never sell them even if they have no work. We will look after them. We love them so much that we can’t sell them as oxen and bulls can only be used for meat,” Vijayan said.
However, Prof. CK Thankachi, activist with People for Animals, points out that the oxen are sent to the slaughterhouse when they fail in the races.
Highlighting the inherent cruelty of Kalapoottu, she also says, “When the race begins these people hurt the oxen in their tails and it is because of pain they run, not to secure first prize. Moreover they are beaten too. Tradition and age old practices can be respected, but that should not hurt anything."