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Clad in saffron dhoti and shirt, Vijay doesn’t look the part. He is not too muscular although he has long fingers and hands. “Muscle mass doesn’t matter. You should be agile and have lasting stamina to stay in the arena,” the 24-year-old graduate from Kuruvithurai in Madurai district said.

You should also be watchful, he says. “You have to watch the bull for a few seconds before deciding when exactly you should pounce on it and grab its hump. On that decision depends whether I will subdue the bull or whether the bull would overcome me,” he adds. Those moments of watchfulness are often backed by months of practice, training and even research-based intel about that particular bull.

Vijay is among more than a thousand young men who will jump in to tame the bulls during Jallikattu in Madurai. Omicron has put this year’s Jallikattu under a shadow but Vijay and others are prepared.

Errors of judgment could be costly. Vijay shows an injury above his left eyebrow carefully masked with a plastic surgery. It cost him Rs 8 lakh to save his face, eyes and life itself. “It was a usual day in the arena but the bull gored me in a fraction of a second. My head was caught between its horns and the flesh and skull was torn apart,” he details his injuries.

Ahead of Jallikattu, bulls and tamers are screened and prior registration of man and the animal is done. The bull tamers are formed into groups and are given a specific time frame (usually one hour or two hours) depending on the number of tamers. The organizing committee decides the winner (bull and tamer) based on the duration a tamer holds on to the hump of the animal.

Common breeds participating in Jallikattu are Pulikulam, Kangayam, Thanjavur short breed, Umbalacheri, Theni hill breed and other native breeds. Though they try to tame all the breeds, Pulikulam is feared for its stamina

Raising bulls and participating in Jallikattu is a hobby for hundreds of youngsters in Southern Tamil Nadu. Post Jallikattu protest, the interest has grown statewide. Almost all communities raise bulls and participate in the sport. But a sizeable chunk of tamers come from the districts around Madurai especially from Mukkulathor community.

Seasoned tamers look into the large eyes of the animal and observe its movements. Some bulls are scared, some are restless and a few are calm. “The dangerous ones are the restless but confident bulls,” says Premkumar from Meenambalpuram in Madurai.

Most of the bulls tend to sprint away from the tamers. The scared ones usually flee and the calm ones are easily subdued. But the restless and confident bulls stay in the arena, charging at will and injuring as many tamers as possible.

Raising bulls and participating in Jallikattu is a hobby for hundreds of youngsters in Southern Tamil Nadu. Post Jallikattu protest, the interest has grown statewide. Almost all communities raise bulls and participate in the sport.

Not all days are good for tamers. Weighing more than half-a-tonne, a scared and angry bull is like a vehicle mowing down a pedestrian. And, how do the tamers know which bulls are dangerous stock?

Prep work

The seasoned tamers keep track of the bulls. When the calves being raised for the sport are released into the arena so they get a feel for it, most calves sprint away. A few make a mark. They have tell tale signs that they will grow to be fearful, fully grown bull in a couple of years. “We track such bulls. Like the animal travels to different Jallikattus, we also travel and gather all the information about the bulls. The young calves are closely studied,” says Mudakkathan Mani, a famous bull tamer in Madurai.

The bulls are trained to charge aggressively

Modern technology has helped. “We track the bulls through YouTube,” says Vijay. There are thousands of such videos on the internet recorded by proud owners. Each bull has its own signature way of charging. Though they are equally capable of charging on the left or the right, they have their preferences. “We study the bulls for their style, character, behaviour and weakness. The moment the organizer announces the bull name and the owner, we know what is going to charge down the vadivasal,” adds Vijay.

The tamers bond as a group, typically from the same village or neighbourhood. Support from other bull tamers is important. Not all attempts to hold the hump succeed. When the bull shakes off one tamer, another should be ready to charge at the bull. “We need someone we know at our side,” says Thangapandi from Kuruvithurai.

Swimming and walking help bulls to improve their stamina

Common breeds participating in Jallikattu are Pulikulam, Kangayam, Thanjavur short breed, Umbalacheri, Theni hill breed and other native breeds. Though they try to tame all the breeds, Pulikulam is feared for its stamina, tamers say.

Most of the tamers also grow bulls. They select and buy the calves that scamper down the vadivasal in the trial runs. As calves grow, they are trained to walk, swim and charge. “The animal has to exercise and the legs should become strong,” says Kasimayan, a bull trainer.

Personal stories

Tamers develop an emotional connect with their animals. The bull bonds with them in turn. Vijay raises a bull named ‘Thakkali’ (tomato). It is named after his friend Vijayanandam who passed away in a road accident two years ago.

Bull and the tamer ( who also raises bulls) share a close bond

Vijay and friends bought a promising calf and named it Thakkali which was Vijayanandam’s pet name. Each tamer turned bull owner has such moving stories. The bulls reciprocate that bond. A ferocious bull behaves like a child while appearing intimidating to others. They bond in a similar way with the girls who raise them.

Some of the bulls raised by women put up a stellar performance. But such bulls typically get a pass. Chivalry takes over. “We know how much the girls would have cared for their animals. We usually let them go, allowing the girls to take the prize,” says Mudakkathan Mani.

Like the bulls are trained from the time they were calves, young boys are trained by the seasoned tamers. Stamina and flexibility are the two parameters for a bull tamer. Promising boys are handpicked and taken under the wings of old timers. They are taught the nuances of taming over time.

For all the cultural identity and pride bull tamers acquire, how do their families see Jallikattu? Vijay’s father Raja is tired of looking for a prospective bride for his son. In the past, winning a girl’s hand was the real prize for taming a bull. “Times have changed. Now, no family is ready to give a girl to a bull tamer,” he says.

The sport is risky. The tamer stands at a higher risk than the bull. Each tamer has injuries to show, ranging from broken bones to missing eye-balls. But the vadivasal continues to beckon more and more young men as a challenge. They will be watching this time, too.


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