Tamil Nadu’s jallikattu events are held around the state’s harvest festival Pongal every year.

Bull-tamers lining up in Avaniapuram jallikattu in Jan 2020File image/PTI
Features Culture Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 17:11

For M Surya, the final round of preparation for the jallikattu in Palamedu starts the evening before the D-day. The 21-year-old youngster from Valayapatti village in the periphery of Madurai district has been working hard on his techniques and strength over the past month, in order to be able to come out of Friday’s event unscathed. He will be wearing ‘token number 8’ in the jallikattu event that will take place in Palamedu on Friday as part of Tamil Nadu’s Pongal celebrations.

Jallikattu is a bull-taming event that takes place across Tamil Nadu around Pongal. The name is derived from ‘Salli’ and ‘Kattu’ which, in Tamil, refers to a bunch of coins knotted in a piece of cloth in the bulls’ horns. Traditionally the sport conducted to judge a man’s bravery and virility, Jallikattu was also a way by which men, in early days, won a woman’s hand in marriage.

While jallikattu events happen all over the state, Avaniapuram, Palamedu and Alanganallur in Madurai district are among the most famous with hundreds of men participating in it and thousands watching it in person. The events are streamed live on television every year and several dignitaries often make time to visit the venue to catch a few moments of the jallikattu. Dozens of prize items from gold coins to motorbikes to home appliances await those who successfully ‘tame’ a bull.

“Till my Class 12, I was not into jallikattu at all. Then gradually I started watching videos on the phone and also caught a couple of events in person in Palamedu and it kindled my curiosity,” Surya tells TNM. He has been participating in jallikattu events for the past four years and this will be his third outing in Palamedu.

To understand the scale of the main three jallikattu events of Tamil Nadu, one must see the number of bulls registered to take part in the event and the number of participants. For example, for Avaniapuram jallikattu that took place on Thursday, over 900 bulls were registered and over 400 participants were declared medically fit to take part in jallikattu.

For many men in these villages, taking part in jallikattu is akin to embarking on something holy. “A few of us here actually tie a holy thread on our wrists around a month before the D-day and abstain from alcohol, meat and cigarettes till the event is completed. Bulls are holy for us and this is a part of our belief,” Surya says. In the evening before the day of the event, the bulls are prepped up by the families and the men visit the temple of their village deity with prayers to make the event go well. “I usually have some holy ash and a lemon from the temple in my pocket during the event. That’s just personal belief and not a compulsion,” he adds.

Around eight kilometres away in Palamedu, M Murugavel, a 20-year-old undergrad student, is busy preparing for jallikattu on Friday. “For the past month, I have been training with the men in my village. We train to run in front of the bulls with our hands extended, some strength exercises etc. We also have a mini mock-jallikattu happening every weekend in our village for practice. These activities get us ready for the actual event,” he says. For Murugavel, this will be his first jallikattu in Palamedu, a village where he was born and raised.

“Last year, I participated in a jallikattu in Dindigul district and was injured. So I wanted to shake that feeling off me and decided to participate in a bigger jallikattu this year in Palamedu,” he explains, adding that more than fear, it is the excitement that keeps youngsters like him going.

The prizes that are up for grabs are also a major factor in several of the young men deciding to give the dangerous sport a shot every year. Over the past four years, Surya has caught around 60 bulls at events in Palamedu, Tiruppur and Coimbatore and has won several prizes including gold and silver coins, table, cot, cupboard etc for his skill and bravery.

This year, amid COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Tamil Nadu has made it mandatory for all the participants to undergo RT-PCR test and present a ‘negative’ certificate to be eligible to enter the arena on the day of the event. The regulations over audiences have also been tightened to avoid crowding and preventing the spread of the virus. 

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