Jallikattu, local breeds and more

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN

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FOR seven days in January 2017, the Marina beach in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, witnessed something extraordinary – tens of thousands of urban Tamilians came out in support of a traditional sport they probably had never seen: jallikattu (bull taming). The largely peaceful protests had men, women, even children, holding placards and shouting slogans; many calling out the state and central governments who had not kept their promise to hold the ancient, rural Tamil sport in time for Pongal (harvest festival) celebrated on January 14.

Jallikattu is a bull taming event practiced in Tamil Nadu on the third day of the four-day Pongal festival that uses indigenous breeds. The term ‘jallikattu’ is derived from the Tamil words ‘jalli’ and ‘kattu’: jalli refers to gold or silver coins, kattu means tied. Combined together it means the coins tied to the bull’s horns, taken as the prize for whoever tames the bull. The bull that wins is used to service numerous cows, thereby preserving the native breed. Jallikattu, though renowned as an ancient sport, is controversial as it often results in injuries and even deaths of the bulls or participants.1

When the protests broke out I was in Chennai. Everywhere there were groups of young men and women travelling on bikes and cars, heading towards Chennai’s Marina beach. Where the roads were blocked, people simply got off or out of their vehicles and walked. Once at the beach they complained about the chief minister and the prime minister. Videos of young women raising slogans went viral. The scale of the protest meant that the national media woke up, and camerapersons and reporters rushed to Marina beach.

Soon everybody became an expert on jallikattu, able to speak eloquently about native cattle breeds, and how if the sport was not allowed, it would mean the end of Kangayams and Puliakulams, two of Tamil Nadu’s five indigenous cattle breeds. This anger and protest was not sudden. It had been brewing and building up ever since the Supreme Court banned jallikattu in May 2014. I had heard all the arguments months earlier at the Kannapuram cattle fair, in the villages near Madurai – famous for its jallikattu events.

I visited the Kannapuram cattle fair for the first time in April 2016; K.C. Doraisamy of Thottipalayam, Vellore, had been coming for 46 years: ‘The Supreme Court ban has badly affected us. For a month before the sports (i.e. rekla – cart racing with bulls and jallikattu – bull taming) we give the bulls maapillai saapadu (feast fit for a new groom). Rekla lasts just ten minutes, but animal welfare activists went and banned it,’ he grumbles. After the races, the bulls change hands, often bought by people who put them to the plough. ‘When the animal gets older it is used to pull rubber-tyre carts. There was a whole system in place,’ Doraisamy explains.

The impact of banning traditional sports that are central to the rural economy and kind to native cattle breeds, is now being clearly felt in Tamil Nadu. Since the jallikattu and rekla bans, healthy bulls, animals in their prime, end up in the market. Male calves that no longer have a purpose, their place in the games gone, are ‘given away’. Jallikattu had previously inspired people to hold onto their bulls – they existed for the pride of their family – but with no outlet for this pride there is no reason anymore for them to be around. Some other reasons that became obvious in the jallikattu protests were that indigenous breeds need to be saved because they have adapted perfectly to the environment, are hardier, their milk (with A2 proteins) is considered superior, and they do not compete with humans for food and water in the same way as imported breeds.

 

As I walk around the fair, I hear all these arguments and more. ‘The Kannapuram cattle fair itself has shrunk,’ says Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, head of the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation in Kuttapalayam, a half hour from Kannapuram. What previously lasted a full fortnight is now an abridged and smaller affair, ending in seven days. ‘Everyday around one lakh people would come,’ says R.P. Palanikumar, one of the fair’s organizers. ‘People came from Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai, Kumbakonam, besides the neighbouring districts. Almost every household used to buy a bullock for field work until tractors replaced them.’

Unloading cattle from lorries at the Kannapuram fair.

For hundreds of years, local, indigenous cattle have been bought and sold at the Kannapuram cattle fair. The fair coincides every April with the festival of Goddess Mariamman, and stretches for about a kilometre on either side of the Trichy-Coimbatore highway. Many people stay on the grounds, with their cattle. They erect small, temporary sheds, with casuarina poles and plaited palm leaf roofs, and in the dappled shade quote prices to prospective buyers, count their cash, and shake their heads when the price offered does not meet their expectations.

Kangayam bull calves and bullocks wait for buyers at Kannapuram.

In April 2016, Karthikeya Sivasenapathy blames the jallikattu ban for the low demand for bulls. ‘It is the tipping point,’ he explains. ‘Tractors and borewells have already done away with much of the need for this hardy draught animal. They were bred primarily to draw water up from wells in this water starved region, and to plough the fields. With their primary purpose gone, there was some continued interest because of the traditional sports. But with even the games banned, there is hardly any incentive to keep these poor milkers.’2

Doraisamy agrees: ‘In the early 1990s the fair was brimming with nearly a hundred thousand heads of cattle. That dropped by 50% after farming activities were fully mechanized. And in the last two years, it’s been savage,’ he rues. ‘There are only around 5000 animals here today,’ he points out, moving his hands and eyes in a wide arc. Looking around at the bulls, cows and calves I can see the Kangayams – tall animals with both sexes having horns. Their colours range from a red (the calves) to white and black (the adults). Their well developed humps are their most distinct features. Stud bulls look menacing; bullocks and cows largely placid. All of them stand comfortably in the heat of the day, a testament to their hardiness and adaptation to local conditions.

‘Cellphone’ Naicker, a cattle seller, and his grandson hold a pair of Kangayams they’ve brought to sell at Kannapuram .

There were few women at the market; I was one of only a dozen or so. The absence of women at the fair was glaringly obvious, yet it went unremarked. But everybody jumped in to explain why there were so few heifers and cows. They were quickly sold, I was told, whereas nobody wanted the bulls and bullocks and bull calves. This, they pointed out with a sigh, was a direct result of the ban. By 11am, the sun was white and blinding and the ground hazy in the heat. Nobody was walking around, except me with my camera and notebook. The locals had taken shelter in the shade of lorries, and in the slim shade of the scrawny trees. Some hunkered under their tractors. One man cooled off by sticking his head under the water lorry’s pipe. Later I was to pay for my stupidity with a massive headache and overly bright photographs, but the advantages were many: the traders and buyers were willing to chat.

The road leading to the Mariamman temple is lined with stalls selling whips and bells.

S.M. Rajendran from Sengodampalayam in the Kangayam region is at the fair with his bulls and cows. ‘What went for Rs 50,000 last year only fetches Rs 30,000 this year. I’ve spent Rs 20,000 just to erect my shed and I stay here for a week. But the heifers do well. Their price has gone up from Rs 25,000 to 50,000. If the ban is lifted, it will benefit the farmer,’ he says. About 25% of the people in his village have desi cattle. But even though the stud bulls are still around, many opt for artificially inseminating their animals. ‘Sometimes the semen gets mixed up and they end up with cross-breeds where the calves look like donkeys!’ he says, laughing.

N. Palanivel (48) has been a regular at the fair for 37 years and tells me he has bought a calf for his son to play with. He says it is something of a good luck charm to come here every year to buy a calf. ‘I’ve been coming here since I was nine years old. Now, I’m wealthy. I have a car and a tractor,’ he says, pointing to his large red SUV parked nearby. His wife is standing close by, watching his son fuss over the new calf. ‘I don’t have any need for bullocks, but my family and I come here to pray to the goddess and buy an animal… It makes me feel good, and it makes me feel at peace…’

 

I also met Periyathambi Naicker (67) with his rani pink shawl, turban and giant stone earrings. ‘I’ve been coming here for ten years,’ he explains in Tamil. ‘I’ve bought a bull calf which I will raise for field work. We grow paddy and corn in our village, Thogamalai, near Tiruchi. But many of the farmers prefer jersey and cross-breed cattle. They give ten litres of milk, you know; these give only two.’

 

A large part of the crowd at the fair first goes to the festival of goddess Mariamman. It was common in all the fairs that were held around the temple car festivals, explains Karthikeya. ‘They are called ther – Kannapuram Ther, Anthiyur Ther in Erode district – and they’re annual events. "Ther" roughly translates as "car festival". Typically, a big wooden chariot is taken around in procession around the temples. Devotees, livestock breeders, sellers, traders – they all visit.’ Down the road leading to the temple at Kannapuram, there were hundreds of devotees. Food stalls lined one side of the road. Savouries and sweets – freshly fried and many coloured a bright orange with chilli and kesari powder – were arranged in cones and pyramids. The road perpendicular to the temple was coloured with whips and ropes. They hung from the roof of temporary shacks like pink, black and green snakes. Crowds milled around, men squatted and struck a hard bargain. Children jingled the brass neck bells of cattle, threaded on black and red ropes; they sounded musical, as if a whole hill full of animals were shaking their heads.

The Kannapuram cattle fair has a reputation for being expensive, a long-term visitor told me. Small farmers tend to go to Anthiyur, especially those who look for more functionality and purpose. For instance, when purchasing a pair of bullocks they wouldn’t care if one animal has a round neck and the other a longer one. Symmetry and looks – especially in paired bullocks – is a speciality of Kannapuram. It is something the traders take very seriously, something they pride themselves on. K.S. Chinnapan is one of them. He used to give bullocks for the rekla race. ‘Handsome pairs fetched good rates,’ he explains. ‘A pair used to fetch up to three lakh rupees. After the ban, the rate fell by half.’ Anbalagan Mani (32) from Coimbatore is sitting next to his pair, on the hard baked earth. The bullocks are huge and handsome with sweeping horns and chiselled faces, poster boys for the Kangayam breed. Passers-by stop to admire them, and say they looked like ‘Nandi’ (the vehicle of Lord Shiva). But Mani was unhappy; he didn’t see the point in having spent a whole year on raising and grooming the cattle. ‘We are a family of bull keepers. We buy and sell bulls. We take home calves from the shanty, and spend time and money on them. Last year, I bought the pair here for 1,15,000 rupees. Had the ban on the games been lifted, these would have fetched me 2,50,000. Now? I don’t have an ask for 1,30,000 for the pair!’

 

It appears to be the same story everywhere, not just at Kannapuram. ‘At Moolanoor lots of people have bulls,’ says Chinappan, ‘but all of us traders have been hit by the ban on the games.’ He looks to his cows for consolation, including a beautiful, pregnant red Kangayam surrounded by an army of fans: ‘I’m hoping to sell her for two lakhs. The highest bid so far is 1.5. Let’s see… Lots of bullocks are going for slaughter. At Oddanchatram and Kundadam markets, the prices are dreadfully low. More animals are going for slaughter, and their rates are falling.’

Healthy, thriving markets – both the big annual ones like Kannapuram, and the local weekly shanties – are vital. At the weekly shanties, patronized by both men and women, local produce (vegetables, sheep, goat, chicken, and crafts, like ropes and farm implements) is bought and sold. Women come to shop for clothes, pots, vessels; men get their hair cut, they buy sickles and spades; small and medium farmers set up stalls themselves, while larger ones sell to traders. At the annual markets – which usually take place around the festival of local deities – the family makes offerings, fulfils vows. To put it simply, markets are at the intersection of culture and livelihood.

‘Markets are a clear indicator of the rural economy,’ says Karthikeya. ‘If there is distress, it is the first place you see it. During droughts, cows and calves are sold. When things get better – and there is enough fodder and water – fewer animals are brought in, only those that need to be sold to finance the usual expenses. Droughts can be particularly cruel and can savage cattle numbers, he points out. ‘Right now, one bale of hay – normally sold for 30 or 40 rupees – retails for 260. How does a small, landless farmer afford it,’ he asks, ‘especially when common lands are being converted into "special investment zones".’ Common land does not belong to the government, it belongs to the people!’

 

This year – with jallikattu and rekla taking place again after the state government passed an ordinance: a state amendment to the national Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act – the Kannapuram cattle fair is expected to be bigger and better. But Karthikeya believes that there might be some impact due to the severe fodder shortage. ‘The prices of Kangayam bulls have gone up 100%, but there are also distress sales as there is simply no water or food.’ However, he remains hopeful that after the awareness created by the protests, new people will come to buy the native cattle breeds so important to Tamil Nadu.

 

Footnotes:

1. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/what-is-jallikattu-1650547

2. These indigenous cows are estimated to produce only a fifth of the milk that an average cross-bred cow does – about 13 litres).

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