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In January 2017, protests and demonstrations were held across Tamil Nadu challenging the 2014 Supreme Court (SC) ban on a rural traditional sport—Jallikattu. Alongside the movement, a debate raged in electronic and print media (both in English and Tamil) on the history, politics, and ethics of Jallikattu. This debate evoked widespread public participation, with academics, political figures, writers, animal rights activists, and cultural figures, including members of the Tamil film industry, voicing their opinions. The Jallikattu debate in 2017 became the fulcrum of discussions on culture, folk traditions, modernity, regional identity, caste, gender, law, the environment, animal rights, and so on. In this module, we attempt to briefly trace the socio-politico-cultural genealogy of Jallikattu in order to better understand the complexities and nuances of these contemporary debates.
The term ‘Jallikattu’ is a compound word derived from two Tamil words—sallikaasu (coins) and kattu (a package)—which gained currency during the colonial period. The festival was named thus as it involved releasing a bull through a narrow gate known as vaadivaasal into an arena where male participants in the festival try to grab a pouch tied to its horns by catching hold of the running animal’s hump. The aim is to secure the pouch successfully without falling off the bull. Taming the bull requires quick reflexes, the absence of which can lead to serious injuries or even fatalities. Celebrated annually across various towns in certain districts of Tamil Nadu such as Trichy, Pudukkottai, Sivaganga, and Madurai, Jallikattu is part of the traditional repertoire of Pongal, the three-day-long harvest festival held in January, or the Tamil month of Thai.
The Tamil word for bull or cow, i.e., maadu, has also come to denote wealth. Moreover, according to the classical Tamil text Thirukkural, authored by poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, education or knowledge is the real ‘maadu’. In this sense, there is ‘value’ attached to the bull—be it in terms of economic wealth or the wealth of knowledge/nature—which has been corroborated in our interviews with bull keepers/tamers, who attribute values of regional pride, identity and culture to the bull (elaborated in the allied article ‘Story of a Bull Keeper’).
While no one disputes that Jallikattu is a long-standing tradition, recent attempts by the state and animal rights organizations to ban the festival have provoked a flurry of articles and essays on the history of this sport that have attempted to prove its legitimacy by establishing the longevity of the practice. This quest to prove the ‘ancientness’ of Jallikattu often calls upon evidence such as a seal depicting the bull-taming practice in the Indus Valley Civilisation—unearthed during excavations in the 1930s at Mohenjo-daro—as proof of its antiquity. Similarly, several rock paintings dating back over 3,500 years were found at Karikkiyur, a remote village in Tamil Nadu, with showmen chasing bulls with big humps and long, straight horns. According to local folklore, Jallikattu has been celebrated since the days of the Nayaka kings, and it is known even to this day as a Veera Vilayattu (warrior sport). The biggest open space available in each village would be used for the sport, and the vaadivaasal marked out for the bulls to make an entrance.
Although traditionally the festival was celebrated in rural Tamil Nadu on the second and third days of Pongal, today, Jallikattu takes place on the first day of Pongal in the town of Avaniyapuram in the Madurai district, and on the second and third days in the towns of Palamedu and Alanganallur, respectively; the festival draws thousands of spectators across the state, who either attend the events themselves or watch it broadcasted on TV. Following the Pongal festival, Jallikattu is conducted across the southern rural belt of the state for the next six months. Interchangeably referred to as festival (vizha) and sport (vilayattu), Jallikattu, at least in its present form (since 2017), is more akin to the latter than the former—due in part to the regulated, organized nature of the practice, including the rigorous methods of care-taking that have evolved to prepare the bulls for the festival.
The changing dynamics of the sport, its representation in popular discourse, and the place of the bull in the hierarchy of this world can be traced through multiple Tamil literary texts. One finds historical references to bull-fighting practices during festivals which date back to the Tamil classical period also known as the Sangam period (400 BC-AD 200). The first elaborate description of this sport, known then as Yeruthazhuvuthal(embrace the bull), can be found in Kalithogai, a Sangam anthology of 150 poems in the kali meter of varied length, composed around 200 BC. In Kalithogai, the festival is described as part of a rural pastoral setup and as being popular among warriors, as it involves both courage and violence. Lines 15–35 of section 102 recount a scene of the festival thus: ‘There is a crowd of people standing around. A man arises and grabs the hump of the bull, then its neck, and then the head. The bull runs in all ferocity with him initially but gets tamed. In the end, the entire crowd and village are happy’. Traditionally, Jallikattu referred to as Yeru Thazhuvuthal (meaning embracing the bull), seems to have been conducted to judge a man’s valor and strength, and this was perceived to be one of the ways to win a woman’s hand in marriage. Another poem in Kalithogai describes the bull as being a woman’s best friend, as it helps select the best man for her.
Apart from being referenced in Sangam literature, the Jallikattu festival has also been prominently featured in modern literary texts in Tamil. For instance, it has been written about in a number of Tamil novels that provide crucial insights into the various iterations of this tradition over the years. B.R. Rajam Aiyar’s Kamalambal Charithiram, written in 1893, depicts the celebration accompanying the sport as one that was attended by men and women in large numbers. In Aiyar’s novel, we also see how the terminology associated with the sport evolved and was used, and how the practice was entangled with rural power structures in the districts of Madurai and Tirunelveli, where the story is set. In the 1930s, Kothamangalam Subbu wrote a short story titled ‘Manji Virattu’, which also refers to a form of Jallikattu. It narrates a conflict which arises against the backdrop of this sport between two caste groups, and, for the first time, describes the festival as one that all Tamils celebrate. He also wrote a novel, Rao Bahadur Singaram, which was published in the popular Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan. Here, the story centers on a romance between a young girl who raises a bull and a youth who sets out to capture it. However, it was C.S. Chellapa’s 1959 novella, Vaadivaasal, which became the ‘locus classicus’ of Jallikattu. The book captures the shifting dynamics of the sport, not just between man and man, but also as it plays out between man and animal. Interestingly, while the port/festival is primarily celebrated among the intermediary castes (such as Thevars), all these texts mentioned above were written by Brahmins. In that sense what we observe here is the cultural significance of Jallikattu in the way that it seems to have captured the Tamil modern imagination across caste lines. Modern Tamil literature depicts Jallikattu in its multiple social and political dimensions, from the changing landscape around it, and the caste conflicts that arise in its context, to the relationship between man and animal.
From the mid-20th century, in cinematic representations of the festival ‘the taming of the bull by the rural hero became a recurring trope’. The town of Alanganallur in the Madurai district soon became synonymous with the sport because of the hit movie starring Rajnikanth, Murattu Kaalai released in 1980. This continues to hold true today, as Govindaraj, one of the bull keepers we interviewed (on 23rd December 2017 at Alanganallur), said, ‘Jallikattu is Alanganallur. Alanganallur is Jallikattu. Jallikattu is a symbol of Alanganallur’. Therefore, through these representations, Jallikattu began to transcend its narrow regional and caste definitions, evolving into a symbol of Tamil identity, pride, and culture.
In January 2017, a 15-day pro-Jallikattu demonstration was held on Marina Beach, Chennai, primarily to protest the SC’s 2014 ban on the sport/festival on the grounds of animal cruelty. The Marina beach protest was one of several protests which occurred across the state—in Madurai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Kanchipuram, Erode, and Tirunelveli, among other locations. The protest also received international support from Tamil diaspora communities in the UK, Australia, Ireland, China, Russia, and the US. The Chennai protest was by far the largest and best-attended. Although often referred to as a ‘student movement’, the protest comprised a large number of people across occupations—working professionals, academics, celebrities, politicians, conservation activists, writers, daily wage workers, and other members of the working class—not just from the city, but several thousand who traveled from other parts of the state to the capital in support of the cause. The protest soon became a fulcrum for addressing a range of grievances against the state. Some of these related directly to Jallikattu, such as the demand to ban the animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and other organizations with an ‘international agenda’ which failed to take cognizance of local communitarian and cultural interests. Some of the other issues raised had no direct relation to Jallikattu, such as demands to boycott multi-national corporations (MNCs), to resolve the ongoing agrarian crisis in the context of the Cauvery River issue, to resist the enforcement of Hindi as an official language by the central government, to improve the plight of the fishermen community, and for a separate Tamil Eelam, to mention some. In that sense, the protest became a movement, a platform to raise voice against several burning issues that signaled state apathy toward regional concerns, and therefore, came to be called a ‘Tamil uprising’ or ‘Tamil Spring’.
Thus, multiple socio-political and economic factors were at play in the protests that erupted in Tamil Nadu in defense of Jallikattu. Political issues include the perceived role of the Indian state in the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka; the recent move by the center to impose Hindi and Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu’s schools; and the inclusion of Hindi and Devanagari numerals in the design of the newly introduced rupee note all contributed to the transformation of the Jallikattu protest into a Tamil Spring. The Hindu Right’s attempts to subsume Tamil identity under a pan-Indian Hindu identity is perhaps the primary cause for this assertion of ‘Tamilness’. However, the mobilization of the Tamil people in the pro-Jallikattu protests also needs to be considered in the context of changing socio-economic realities in Tamil Nadu.
Several people and organizations have demanded that Jallikattu be given legal status, including Karthikeyan Sivasenapathy (Senapathy Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation), Dr. P. Rajasekaran (Jallikattu Peravai Tamil Nadu), and Tamil hip-hop artist Tamizha Adhi, among others, since the initial ban on the sport in 2006. For instance, since 2012 in Madurai, Sivasenapathy has been working to create awareness about the festival and the science behind the practice, bringing it together with notions of Tamil pride and culture. Despite many such efforts, the SC banned the Jallikattu festival in 2014, based on evidence of animal abuse and cruelty submitted by PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). Preparations for the festival took place even in the two years following the ban in the hope that it would be revoked. However, the SC did not budge on its verdict despite appeals made by both state and central governments. In 2016, the Central Government reversed its earlier decision and exempted bulls from the list of performing animals, an action which met with severe criticism from SC justices who questioned the authority of the Centre on this matter. The SC then issued a stay order, effectively banning the sport once again, just five days after the Centre revoked the ban. Repeated attempts to legalize the festival sparked much discussion and debate around the sport, especially on social media. In June 2016, a video released by rapper Adhi, linking Jallikattu and Tamil pride, went viral on YouTube, garnering six million views. The video addressed the importance of Jallikattu’s role in promoting native breeds of livestock and organic farming. With resentment growing against not only political parties within the state, but the central government as well, on account of their failure to legalize and legitimize the festival, the SC’s refusal to reconsider the matter in November 2016 was the final straw that set off a spate of protests across the state.
As mentioned earlier, social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp, played a crucial role in bringing the protesters together and making the protests possible. The posts were circulated widely and included messages of unity and pleas to collectively defy the orders of the apex court; demands for a revival of Tamil culture; and calls to save native breeds of cattle. Multiple hashtags were used across popular mediums, ensuring that the messages and posts had a wide reach. The protests in Chennai began on January 8, 2017, with about 5000 pro-Jallikattu protesters holding placards saying, among other things, ‘Save Jallikattu’, touting it as a matter of ‘Tamil Pride’ and ‘Tamil Culture. Various slogans were raised during the protest against the ban, including some demanding the ban of PETA. The site of the protest was the six-kilometer-long stretch of Marina Beach, a popular and prominent location which attracts a large number of visitors on a daily basis.
Protesters, predominantly students, marched from the lighthouse to the ‘Triumph of Labour’ statue on the beach, along with folk performers and a decorated bull. The protest marches continued for a couple of days until the SC once again rejected the plea for reverting its judgment on Jallikattu. Afterward, numerous student protesters were arrested in Alanganallur, and once again, massive protests erupted on January 17 in Chennai. What began at 6 am with a handful of students grew into a crowd of thousands of people protesting until past midnight. While protesters engaged in sloganeering, holding placards, and forming human chains, they ensured that the demonstrations were peaceful, demonstrators cleaned up the protest sites, and food and water were supplied to all. When the Chennai police turned off the lights along the Marina stretch that night, thousands of mobile phone torches were lit up in defiance of this attempt by the state to subdue the protests. Protesters who stayed back that night and camped on the beach were provided with tents and blankets. In the media, the demonstrators were applauded for how the whole affair was conducted—the protest was driven by the youth of today, strove to keep away the political class and the state, and above all, was mindful and peaceful.
The leaders of the protest—Sivasenapathy, Rajasekaran, and Adhi—met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh on January 20, 2017, along with President Pranab Mukherjee and the Governor of Tamil Nadu, C. Vidyasagar Rao, drafted and signed an ordinance which sanctioned the festival on January 21. By the time they returned to the city, however, the mood of the protest had changed. According to Sivasenapathy, students from other districts and towns had left the site, but other groups with vested interests had taken over the protest. On January 23, parts of the protest turned violent and the organizers distanced themselves from these groups, claiming that a victory delivered by students was being hijacked by ‘fringe’ causes that were overshadowing the core demand of the movement. While both English and Tamil media supported the event, neither they nor the state recognized that the protests were not concerned merely with one demand. They were unable to realize the transformative potential and nature of the event.
Jallikattu, the sport, is generally practiced in certain districts of Tamil Nadu—Trichy, Pudukkottai, Sivaganga, and Madurai—during the harvest festival of Pongal, celebrated in the month of January or Thai as per the Tamil calendar. While the sport has a long social and cultural history, it acquired a new prominence and became the symbol of a resurgent Tamil identity during the Jallikattu protest in 2017. The protest has a pretext and context. The pretext is, inter alia, resistance to the Indian state’s aggressive policies in Tamil Nadu—its role in the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, its imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit in schools, and the inclusion of Hindi and Devanagari numerals in the design of rupee notes—aimed at extending the Centre’s shadow power over the region by making inroads in cultural as well as political and administrative practices. The context of the protest is the fast-changing socio-economic reality of the state. On the one hand, the agrarian crisis, rapid urbanization, and the blurring distinction between the rural and urban have recast the Tamil village as a site of nostalgia. On the other, Dalit mobility and changing social relations have generated fresh anxieties among intermediate castes. The increasing sense of alienation, displacement, and incompleteness felt by new inhabitants of urban spaces in Tamil Nadu, owing to the rootless and abstract lifestyles of the city, often induces in them the desire to seek compensation in an idyllic, almost mythical, rural past.
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