Ramamma decorated her house with banana stems and mango leaves and cooked the sweet porridge as she always did on Pongal. The harvest festival, however, was not the same for the 72-year-old of Palaimedu village. Instead of the hordes of bulls and bull tamers that have come to symbolize the hamlet, police barricades greeted villagers everywhere. The days of adventure were gone.
Palaimedu and other villages around Madurai had a subdued festival as hundreds of police personnel descended on them to comply with a Supreme Court order banning Jallikkattu, the age-old bull-taming sport that marked the agrarian festival in mid-January and several local temple festivals that would last until May.
“Our village is like a dead house now and I can’t sleep thinking of the consequences of banning Jallikkattu,” Ramamma says. Villagers see the show of valour as some kind of a talisman. They believe the sport brings prosperity to the village and good health to the villagers.
The villagers protested the ban by shuttering shops and putting up black flags. “They should not come to our village to rule over us,” Ramamma says.
“This year’s Pongal is just like any normal day, we did not even call our relatives home,” says Veeramma, another woman in the hamlet.
The Supreme Court banned the sport last year based on petitions from People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals and the Animal Welfare Board of India stating that Jallikattu involves immeasurable suffering inflicted on the bulls and the families of those killed while trying to tame the bulls.
In the process, the court also struck down an earlier law passed by the Tamil Nadu government to regulate the sport and avoid cruel practices. Jallikkattu has been held under strict state supervision since 2009 when animal rights activists brought the sport close to a ban.
Bulls were no longer let loose on a crowd. Only the assigned players, in team jerseys, were allowed inside the arena. Representatives of the district administration watched over for any high-handedness by the caretakers. Activists had alleged that bulls were poked, force-fed alcohol and sprayed with chili powder to make them more aggressive.
Veeramma disagrees, pointing to the restless Jallikkattu bull tethered in her backyard, shaking its coloured horns menacingly at anyone who approaches. “My bull knows the Jallikattu season. He was supposed to have gone around the state now winning prizes.” “We fear that the lack of activity will make the bull more restless,” she says.
Villagers bathe their cattle and garland them on the third day of Pongal festivities dedicated to these animals. Mattu Pongal is a day of thanksgiving to the animals. For them, Jallikkattu is a tribute to the majesty of their bulls.
The government-regulated sport came under threat again in July 2011 when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests banned the exhibition and training of bulls as performing animals under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The event had been continuing until May 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled against it.
While parties across Tamil Nadu petitioned the Union government to reconsider the ban, Union Minister for Women & Child Development Menaka Gandhi, known for her animal rights campaigns, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, saying that the ritual involved the killing of bulls, which are essential for the farmsteads.
Villagers have a different story to tell. The ban would spell doom for the bulls raised exclusively for the sport. The strong native bulls are not used for any other work as they are the pride of their owners. Their value is decided by their invincibility. With nowhere to show off their prowess, the variety would eventually become extinct as their upkeep is an expensive affair.
More than 50,000 Jallikattu bulls have been sold to slaughter houses in Kerala since the Supreme Court ruling in May, Jallikkattu organisers say.
But some farmers such as Veeramma consider the bulls part of family. “We would take care of the bull until its last breathe,” the 32-year-old woman says.
Jallikkattu has so firmly been woven into the cultural fabric that some villages raise common bulls for the event. The bulls that belong to the local temple, and in certain areas the parish churches, are seen as common property. Temple bulls are taken to each household for blessing before the Jallikattu event.
Several Christian parishes also organise Jallikattu on the church premises between the harvest in January and next season’s sowing in May. The faithful bring their cattle to the church on Pongal to be blessed by the priest.
“Church has always stayed close to Tamil culture. It has always endorsed local art and culture,” says a priest from Madurai district.
“For the common man, the court decision is disappointing as they consider Jallikattu sacred,” he adds.
“Jallikkattu is simply a cruel sport,” says Don Williams, general secretary of Blue Cross India “The ban has been put into place by the country’s highest court after hearing the views of experts. People must respect that decision,” he says.
“People should be willing to adapt to change for a better cause. When we speak of the sentiments of villagers, we are forgetting about the animals,” he adds.
According to him, India has a rich history of legislations intended for animal welfare starting with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. He says Implementation has been tardy but hopes better times are ahead for the animals.
Earlier this month, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh ordered a ban on cock-fighting, a popular sport in coastal Andhra Pradesh during the harvest festival.
The Assam government asked the officials in all districts to ensure prohibition of all kinds of traditional animal fights involving buffalo, bulbul and cocks.
Jallikattu organisers, however, rubbish the activists’ allegations as the agrarian sport takes place under strict supervision by state officials, following guidelines set down by a 2009 law.
"Jallikattu events have already dropped from 3,000 to just 15 over the last decade," says Balakumar Somu who runs a Jallikattu website which includes a detailed socio-cultural history of the event.
"The court order will be the last nail in its coffin if authorities fail to act," he said.
The villagers, however, still have to see their bulls ferociously running through the local arenas once again, at least by the next Pongal.