Jallikattu is based on the simple concept of “flight or fight”. Cattle being herd and prey animals in general tend to run away from unwanted situations. But there are quite noteworthy exceptions. Cape buffalos are famous for standing up against lions and killing them. The Indian Gaur bull is known for standing its ground against predators and tigers think twice about attacking a full grown Gaur bull. Aurochs, the ancestor of domestic cattle was known for its pugnacious nature. Jallikattu bulls belong to a few specific breeds of cattle that descended from the kangayam breed of cattle and these cattle are very pugnacious by nature. These cattle are reared in huge herds numbering in hundreds with a few cowherds tending to them. These cattle are for all practical comparisons, wild and only the cowherds can mingle with them without any fear of being attacked. It is from these herds that calves with good characteristics and body conformation are selected and reared to become jallikattu bulls. These bulls attack not because they are irritated or agitated or frightened, but because that is their basic nature.
There are three versions of jallikattu:
1) Vadi Manju Virattu – This version takes place mostly in the districts of madurai, pudukottai, theni, tanjore and salem. This version that has been popularised by television and movies involves the bull being released from an enclosure with an opening. As the bull comes out of the enclosure, one person clings to the hump of the bull. The bull in its attempt to shake him off will bolt (as in most cases), but some will hook the guy with their horns and throw him off. The rules specify that the person has to hold on to the running bull for a predetermined distance to win the prize. In this version, only one person is supposed to attempt catching the bull. But this rule being strictly enforced depends on the village where the event is conducted and more importantly, the bull himself. Some bulls acquire a reputation and that alone is enough for them to be given a unhindered passage out of the enclosure and arena.
2) Vaeli Virattu – This version is more popular in the districts of sivagangai, manamadurai and madurai. The bull is released in an open ground without any restrictions in any way (no rope or determined path). The bulls once released just run away from the field in any direction that they prefer. Most don’t even come close to any human. But there are a few bulls that don’t run but stand their ground and attack anyone who tries to come near them. These bulls will “play” for some time (from a few minutes to a couple of hours) providing a spectacle for viewers, players and owners alike. The magnificence of such bulls cannot be described. They must be seen firsthand to really understand the basic psyche behind the sport of jallikattu.
3) Vadam Manjuvirattu – “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 great the spectators are shielded by barricades.
The calves that are chosen to become jallikattu bulls are fed a nutritious diet so that they develop into strong, sturdy beasts. The bulls are made to swim for exercise. The calves, once they reach adolescence are taken to small jallikattu events to familiarize them with the atmosphere. Specific training is given to vadam manju virattu bulls to understand the restraints of the rope. Apart from this, no other training is provided to jallikattu bulls. Once the bulls are released, then instinct takes over.
Jallikattu, which is bull-baiting or bull fighting, is an ancient Tamilian tradition, popular amongst warriors during the Tamil classical period. According to legend, in olden days the game was used by women to choose their husbands. Successful “matadors” were chosen as grooms.
The term Jallikattu comes from the term “Salli” kassu (coins) and “Kattu” (meaning a package) tied to the horns of the bulls as the prize money. Later days during the colonial period this term got changed to Jallikattu which is the term currently used. Usually the majestic Kangeyam bull is involved in this game, as they are naturally more ferocious and muscular than any other of its species.
Famous Jallikattu locations include:
- Tiruvapur near Pudukottai
- Kondalaampatti, Thammampatti in Salem, Tamil Nadu
- Palemedu near Madurai
- Sravayal near Karaikudi
- Kanduppatti near Sivagangai
- Venthanpatti near Ponnamaravathy, Pudukottai (Dist)
- Pallavarayanpatty near Cumbum
Unlike in bullfighting, the matador does not kill the bull. There are rarely any casualties suffered by the bulls. Several animal activists object to this dangerous game every year, but so far these objections have been in vain.
There are several rock paintings, more than 3,500 years old, at remote Karikkiyur village in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu that show men chasing bulls. Kaikkiyur, situated about 40 km from Kotagiri town, is the biggest rock art site in south India. The rock surface site, teeming with more than 500 paintings, was discovered in 2004.