Tamil Nadu's annual Pongal (harvest) festival will start on January 15. I was in South India for the 2003 festivities and shot a photo essay (see below) on Jallikattu, the ancient and violent bull-taming festival, which is celebrated in some rural districts, including at Alanganallur, a village about 15 kilometers from Madurai.
In a cross between a Spanish running of the bulls and Texas rodeo, contestants try to tame a charging bull by grabbing onto the hump and riding -- being dragged -- to the finish line about twenty meters away. They can also pile on the bull, forcing it to stop. Another goal is to grab the gold coins tied to the horns of some of the bulls.
Jallikattu is mentioned in Tamil classical poetry, suggesting that it dates from before the time of Christ. In the old days, winners walked away with a village’s loveliest brides. Today they take home TVs and gold coins.
(From clickmadurai.com, a website promoting events and culture in the Madurai district)
In the village of Alanganallur, Jallikattu is celebrated as part of a temple festival, with offerings of food and cookware. Stainless steel pots and pans are paraded through the street, with accompanying firecrackers, to be collected and then redistributed as prizes to the contestants. The other prizes include gold coins, bicycles, TV sets, lanterns, tape recorders, lungis, and assorted cots and wall clocks.
Farmers train their bulls to attack, even to thrust their horns, which have been sharpened, at objects on the ground. On the day of the festival, they oil the humps and tails, decorate them with turmeric and vermilion, and garland them with marigolds -- the Pongal festival venerates the cow.
During the 2003 event, Dr. Balaji, the senior physician at the Alanganallur hospital -- one of 14 doctors and 86 medical professionals in total -- counted 269 injured, about 18 critically, with severe head injuries and bleeding, some gored in the stomach and chest, and those with a lost eye, ear, or nose.
All the injured were young men between the ages of 18 and 30. "When they come in, they usually insist that we treat them so they can get back to the fight," said Dr. Balaji. "We need more safety measures to protect the people in the arena."
The wounded are almost entirely the spectators in the street who have overwhelmed the police at the gates and are not the participants themselves. The critically wounded are taken to hospitals in the city, where some succumb to his injuries. Each year a handful of people die at the various Jallikattu events throughout southern Tamil Nadu.
The Madurai adheenam, the area’s senior Hindu priest, said, "I am not against Jallikattu. But I do not want innocent spectators to be killed and grievously injured and their body parts mutilated. Nor should the animal be subjected to torture. The state government should either make sure that adequate security is provided to prevent such mishaps or should ban this practice. We cannot allow this to continue in the present way."
Promoted by the Tamil Nadu Ministry of Tourism, Jallikattu at Alanganallur is the biggest and most established of the bull taming festivals, attracting corporate sponsorship. Alanganallur has been hosting Jallikattu for at least 300 years. The local panchayat, the village council, organizes the event, providing drinking water and toilets for the spectators, who number about 50,000. Private companies build the galleries along the street and charge money for the space. The event is free for the 500 or so registered participants.
The state tourist board buses in foreign tourists from the hotels in Madurai and installs them, wide-eyed and garlanded with flowers, in the VIP gallery.