Jallikattu: Origin, Controversy, and Question of Tamil Identity

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‘Jallikattu’: The one word that has made the headlines of every national and regional daily newspaper multiple times in the last two months, and is the cause of a major agitation in the state of Tamil Nadu. What started as a question of cruelty to bulls during the celebration of the Tamil festival Pongal has become a widespread agitation and a debate about the cultural identity of the Tamilians. India is a country where people take immense pride and often attach great significance with their regional practices and rituals and any interference with the same, no matter how rational, is taken to mean an affront or insult to the community. Thus the issue at hand becomes bigger than it really is and ultimately leads to violence and protests instead of a peaceful resolution. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the ‘Jallikattu’ controversy.


Jallikattuis,  a bull taming sport played every year in the state of Tamil Nadu as part of its annual Pongal celebrations. The name Jallikattu can be split into words, Jalli (also salli or kasu) which translates into coins, and Kattu, which means pouch or bundle. Traditionally the game involved the tying of pouches filled with coins to the horns of the bulls and these bulls were agitated or intoxicated before being left free in an enclosure where village folk tried to take these pouches without being killed by the bulls. Over the years the practice of tying the coins has evaporated and it has become more about overpowering the bulls and taming them with bare hands.

The earliest recorded mention of the sport of Jallikattu was around 400 years B.C. as a part of the process of finding a suitable groom for girls of marriageable age. The person successful in taming the bull in the shortest time period would get the hand of the girl in marriage. The sport was also used by the Yadavas as a display of the immense bodily strength of their men. Victory in the game also involved a good amount of prize money being awarded to the winners.

The sport of Jallikattu has often been compared to the Spanish sport of bullfighting but the primary difference between the two is that while in the Spanish version the matador is expected to kill the bull, in the Tamil version the only aim is to tame and not kill the bull. Fatalities are extremely rare in the sport of Jallikattu although the risk of being severely injured is quite high.


The following are the three different versions of the sport –

  1. Vadi Manju Virattu – This version takes place mostly in the districts of Madurai, Pudukottai, Ttheni, Tanjore and Salem. This particular form of the sport has also been immensely popularised by television and movies. It involves the bull being released from an enclosed space through an opening. As the bull exits the enclosure, one person clings to the hump of the bull. The bull then attempts to shake him off by running or using its horns or any other means to get the person off its back. According to the rules, the person is supposed to hold onto the hump of the bull for a predetermined distance to win the prize. This version of the game is more like a one on one match wherein only one person attempts the feat of holding on to the bull. However, the enforcement of this rule is strictly dependent upon the village where it is being conducted.
  2. VaeliVirattu – This version is more popular in the districts of Sivagangai, Manamadurai, and Madurai. In this version of the sport, the bull is released into an open field without any barricades, restrictions, or predetermined paths. The bulls, once released, start to run in any direction they feel like. Most bulls try to run away from the human population, but there are a few bulls that stand their ground and attack anyone who tries to come near them. These bulls will ‘play’ for a while (the duration may range from a couple of minutes to a few hours) and provide an entertaining spectacle for the viewers, players and owners alike.
  3. VadamManjuvirattu – “vadam” means rope in Tamil. The bull is tied to a 50 ft long rope and is free to move within this space. A team of 7 or 9 members must attempt to subdue the bull within 30 minutes. This version is very safe for spectators as the bull is tied and the spectators are shielded by barricades.


Even though the sport has been around for generations, it has attracted the attention of various animal rights and welfare organisations, such as PETA, over the years. In fact, organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Federation of India Animal Protection Agencies (FIPA) have been opposing the conduct of the sport since 2004.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) was the first to take a legal action against the same by filing a suit in the Supreme Court of India requesting an outright ban on the sport on the grounds of cruelty to animals and threat to public health and safety. The main argument of AWBI centred on the fact that the sport exploited the bulls’ natural nervousness as prey animals by deliberately forcing them into intimidating and stressful situations, kicking into action their fight or flight mechanism. Their other argument was that it posed a great risk to the participants as well as the spectators due to the unpredictable and volatile reaction of the bulls, which has in some cases also led to fatalities during the continuance of the sport. Cases have also been reported in which the bulls have suffered serious harm or even death due to the constant clawing and hitting by the participants attempting to subdue the bull.

November 27, 2010, saw the Supreme Court pass an order in the matter permitting the Tamil Nadu government to allow Jallikattu for a span of five months in the entire year and also directed the District Collectors to ensure the registration of the participating animals with the Animal Welfare Board. AWBI was also allowed to send a representative to every venue where the sport was taking place.

2011, however, saw a more radical action being taken against the sport by the Ministry of Environment and Forests under the UPA Government. The ministry banned the use of bulls for the sport, thereby indirectly banning the sport itself. The state of Tamil Nadu thus came up with a local legislation called the Regulation of Jallikattu Act 2009 which enabled the sport to be carried on in the state without any obstacles.

Reports suggest that between 2010 and 2014 at least 17 people have died and approximately 1000 have been injured during Jallikattu events and owing to these figures in May 2014 the Supreme Court struck down the 2009 Act and completely banned the sport. It further added that disobedience of the said order would attract penalties and punishments under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The Supreme Court also ruled that cruelty is inherent in these events, as bulls are not anatomically suited for such activities and undergo ‘unnecessary pain and suffering’ as a result of the festival.

There was a lot of to and fro in the said case between the government and the judiciary with the Centre allowing the sport in a controlled manner by means of a notification on January 8, 2016, but the apex court re-imposed the ban in July of the same year.

January 2017 saw the rise of protests in favour of Jalikattu owing to which lawyers filed urgent petitions against the ban which were rejected by the Supreme Court upholding the imposed ban. This led to widespread agitation and discontent among the people of Tamil Nadu and the sport was played in multiple cities even though the ban was still in place.


With more and more Tamilian protestors taking to the streets against the ban on the sport, the question has become bigger than that of cruelty to animals and is now about the religious and cultural identity of the Tamilians. The practice of Jallikattu can be traced back to ancient times and according to the Tamilians forms an indispensable and significant part of their cultural heritage. It is a part and parcel of the celebration of their most important festival and most people see it is a ban on their right to celebrate their culture in a manner they deem fit. Tamilians have time and again tried to reiterate the fact that they feel slighted by the mistreatment and indiscrimination meted out to the people of Southern India by the Northern part of the country. The people from the South are teased about their complexion, dressing, food habits and even accents and most Tamilians feel that the government does not pay as much attention to the development of the South as it does to the North. By extension of the same, the ban on Jallikattu is seen as a personal attack by most Tamilians since it is an affront to their cultural practices. Pongal is the single biggest and most significant festival for the Tamilians and interference with the conduct of the same is seen as an attempt to undermine the culture of the Tamilian community. The agitation has thus taken an ugly shape with more and more people taking the ban on the sport personally and hence reacting to the same in violent ways.


While a few believe that it is farcical to reduce the identity of Tamilians to the conduct of a mere sport, others say that the interference is a direct attack on the cultural integrity of the Tamil community. A few others believe that the issue is being blown wildly out of proportion and what should have been restricted to questions regarding animal cruelty and public safety has been unnecessarily blown up to include questions of regional and cultural integrity and sentimentality. While the views on the issue are aplenty, a resolution to the conflict is yet to be seen and the need of the hour remains to reach an agreement that is agreeable to both parties of the conflict.


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