this past week, i drove down to madurai to attend two days of jallikattu – an indian bull-taming contest. in a jallikattu contest, young indian men try to grab a bull by the hump on its back and hold on for as long as possible. traditionally, indian men would take part in a jallikattu as a test of strength, or to win the hand of prettiest girl in the village. the season begins after the pongal harvest festival in mid-january, and the bulls that are trained for jallikattu come from a specific breed of cattle known for its pugnaciousness.

sunday: i drove down from chennai that morning, taking the national highway, which is a surprisingly wide and smooth road. at a leisurely pace, the trip took me seven hours, which was what i’d expected. the hotel i had chosen for my stay was a cheap one which had originally been selected for  a jallikattu group trip sponsored by  the photographic society of madras; the trip was cancelled, but i decided to go on my own to meet two members who already were in town, and in keeping with the spirit of the adventure, i decided to see what a 900 rupee ($19) per night hotel was like.  i was shown to my room and i saw the blanket crumpled up at the foot of the bed along with the dirty sheets. the clerk assured me that the sheets had been changed, but a 20 rupee tip to the bellman ensured that i got fresh sheets – in other words, i took the room anyway. this is what i wanted to experience first-hand, after all, and i had my own roll of toilet paper; with the addition of clean sheets, a firm mattress, and reliable hot water, what else did i need? i didn’t notice the long black hairs on the floor until later, but by then it was too late. the fact that the elevator across the hall from my room played a tinny version of beethoven’s “für elise” whenever anyone left the door open or pushed a button, and did so long into the night, was just an added bonus.

monday: i met my one of my companions, named narayan, and we set off for the village of palamedu, where the first jallikattu would be held. on the way, narayan explained that in olden times, there’d be just a few of the village strong men who would take part in the competition, but nowadays any number of drunken guys take part and crowd in on the bull as soon as it’s released from the gate. once it looks like someone has a good chance at catching the bull, the others are supposed to back off, but it’s still a mad crowd. i asked narayan whether people got injured, and he responded “yes, and sometimes guys even killed.” he stopped for a minute. “no, every time.”

we arrived at the village and walked to the arena. palamedu has one of the more famous jallikattus in tamil nadu, so it has a small permanent structure built in the center of the village, but the event has grown so big that they extended it with bamboo stands and chain link fencing. i am terrible at estimating distances, but i’d say that the extension ran about 150 yards long and 40 yards wide. there was coconut matting spread over the first 100 feet of the arena, and i subsequently found out that this was the official catching area: the contestants had to grab the bull before it ran past the matting, or the round would be over and the bull would be free. unfortunately, i didn’t know this sooner, because after narayan conducted a little negotiation, we took a space in the one of the viewing stands, and we were a good 30 yards beyond the matting’s edge.

after we settled in, the 80 or so contestants ran onto the field. each of them had  been given a green shirt so the judges would know who was allowed to be in the arena. (whether any of them had to pass a sobriety test before they registered, i can’t say.) we watched from the stands for about an hour, and each round followed one of three patterns: the bull would come out, half the guys would crowd in on it while the other half ran away, and then either (1) one or two guys would try to grab on, and one would maintain his hold; (2) one or two guys would try to grab on, they’d get tossed off, and the bull would break through the crowd and run across the matting; or (3) none of the guys would get close to grabbing the bull before it got away. while this was happening on the field, i added my own pattern, in that during each jallikattu round, i had to push back against the short drunken guy who came in 15 minutes after the start of the event and decided to squeeze himself between me and the pole i was leaning against. he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. the crush of people was bad enough – the stand owner didn’t limit the number of people he let in – but having to fight off some guy who was trying to wedge his entire body into my butt cheeks while his hot, beer-soaked breath stained my neck … let’s say that i now understand how some of the girls felt at my fraternity’s parties.

the bull comes out, and a number of contestants immediately fall upon its neck and back; by the fourth frame, one guy has emerged with the best claim to the bull’s back, and in the fifth frame, he appears to have control, but by the sixth frame, the bull is fighting back. the bull throws him by the eighth frame and he’s down in the ninth, but he has held on long enough to claim his prize (and walk away unhurt). total time from start to finish: one minute, nine seconds.

so, what makes these bulls so fierce? as i noted above, the bulls are bred for their fighting ability; the owners train them and give them special feed to make them strong. however, in the past, the bull owners would increase the bulls’s anger by rubbing chili powder in their eyes, getting them drunk, or clamping their testicles. in response to the complaints of animal advocates (including blue cross of india), the government began to impose restrictions on the jallikattus, and all of these types of practices are illegal. there were three veterinary vans on the grounds and the animals were watched carefully while they were in line for their turn in the arena (there were 500 bulls, so the line was pretty long). everything seemed pretty legit. still, even in a non-enhanced state of excitement, the bulls can do some damage, and all during the contest, a snippet of tom lehrer’s “in old mexico” kept coming to mind:

the moment had come, i swallowed my gum
we knew there’d be blood on the sand pretty soon
the crowd held its breath, hoping that death
would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon

a lot of guys did get tossed but we didn’t see any real injuries. one guy get hooked by a bull’s horns but, miraculously, the bull only caught his shirt and didn’t rip his back open. in the sequence below, a contestant had to get carried off, but from the grins on his friends’ faces, i assumed he wasn’t hurt too badly:

and what does the winner get for catching the bull? in many cases, the prize was a bicycle, although there also were a few large cooking pots and bureaus. (if the bull won the contest, the owner might collect the prize instead.) coupled with the pride of taming a bull, for these village guys, the prize was a big deal; i’m just not sure it’d be worth getting gored or stomped.

next: another jallikattu! 

Author: cohn17

Photographer and baker of macarons.

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