“Jallikattu,” a sport that got its name from Tamil words “Jalli,” which means gold or silver coins, and “Kattu,” which means “tying,” is one of the most popular cultural sport in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This competition is conducted on the third day of the Pongal festival. The day is popularly known as “Mattu Pongal” and usually falls between the 13th and 17th of January (10th month as per the Tamil calendar) every year. Jallikattu is played in a large, open ground where the bull is set loose on the group of players. The players then try to tame the bull by getting a hold on its hump. In the end, the player who can tame it is declared as the winner and gets to bag the silver or gold coins that are tied to the horns of the bull at the beginning of the sport. On the other hand, the bull, which manages to defeat all the players, is declared as the winner of the competition and is used for breeding. Also, the winner bull scores the highest price in the market.
The history of this traditional sport dates back to somewhere between 400 BC to 100 BC. The game is believed played by the Ayer people living in the Mullai division of ancient Tamil Nadu. The traces of the sport can be seen in a 1500 years old cave painting, which was found near the South Indian city of Madurai. The painting depicts a man attempting to control a bull. Additionally, the National Museum in India’s Capital city, New Delhi, has preserved a seal representing the sport, which is believed to be from the Indus Valley Civilization. Initially, the game was popular as bull embracing; however, with time, it transformed into a platform for men to showcase their bravery in front of the larger audiences. The practice of tying the prize money to the horns of the bull was introduced later to increase the number of players participating in the sport.
According to legends, once Lord Shiva ordered his bull named “Basava,” to convey his word to the humans. In the message, he asked humans to take an oil bath daily and consume food just once a month until six months. Basava, instead of conveying the actual word, told the opposite to people, and as a result, everyone started consuming food every day and taking an oil bath once a month. Lord Shiva, because of the misunderstanding generated, punished the bull by cursing it to help the humans in plowing their fields for growing crops.
Even though the people of Tamil Nadu consider Jallikattu a vital tradition, a series of controversies associated with the sport including the unethical treatment of bull owners towards their animal, the high percentage of injury and even deaths during the game had prompted the authorities to consider banning the sport more than once. Reportedly, the competitions between 2008 and 2014, claimed the lives of 43 people and four bulls, after which the highest judiciary body of the country, the Supreme court of India, as a result of a plea by Animal Welfare Board of India and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), banned the sport altogether from the country. However, the ban was lifted with certain amendments to the law again in January 2017, following the massive protests by people including farmers across the state of Tamil Nadu.
In 2017 alone, almost 23 people died, 2500 people and several bulls got injured during the sport conducted in various villages across Tamil Nadu. Although Jallikattu is controversial and the ethics of those involved in it is often questioned, yet, the historical value and the traditional significance of the sport for the people of the state cannot be denied.