Super Subcultures

The Fight Over One of the World’s Deadliest Sports

In this thousand-year-old pastime, 50 men battle to mount a charging bull. The riders say it’s an essential part of their heritage. Animal rights activists want it outlawed.

The Fight Over One of the World’s Deadliest Sports

It’s mid-January, harvest time in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The village of Alanganallur is buzzing, festive, rowdy with excitement. Today is devoted to jallikattu: a form of bull riding that is one of the most dangerous and controversial sports on earth.

In an arena in the heart of the village, wearing a neon green number 11 jersey, Vinothraj Navaneethan half-crouches behind a painted coconut stump at the bull’s gateway. His knee is strapped for support, and he’s sharp with adrenaline. He is not alone in the arena. Unlike American bull-riding, in jallikattu, each animal is released into a tangle of men who jostle for a chance at a ride.

The bull charges like a detonation of brawn and color. Behind lowered horns, his body is a hill of muscle roiling beneath a slippery hide. His hump, the fleshy pinnacle at the wither — marking him as a bos indicus, an Indian native — billows a steam cloud of decorative pink chalk or pale ash. He might glitter all over. His horns might be painted blue or ochre. He might be haloed in a burst of blossoms, like a swarm of butterflies, as the garland of flowers ringing his horns is ripped by fingers seeking purchase.

Hands grasp at him as he surges; men leap onto his back. He rises, parries with his horns, bolts, sometimes slips and falls. If he dips past the exit corridor and circles back to chop his horns at his aggressors, the packed crowd and the voice on the loudspeaker holler, “Super! Super!”

Alanganallur villagers celebrate the mid-January harvest with jallikattu.

There will be another bull, and another — a new bull every few minutes. By day’s end, 571 bulls will have been launched into this scrum of riders. There will be many injuries. On this particular day, in this particular arena, there will be no deaths. But when the three days of the harvest festival called Pongal, the peak of jallikattu season, are up, at least five men will have lost their lives to bulls.

Vinoth — as the wiry, hollow-cheeked, moustached rider is known — is not nervous. At 32, he has nearly 20 years of jallikattu experience, and he’s one of the best.

But he’s focused, waiting for the right bull — the big scary one, the one whose reputation the announcer hypes in the moments before the charge. When that bull blasts through the vaadivassal — the gateway — Vinoth will lunge. He’ll enfold the bull’s hump in his arms, hug tight and try to ride out the fireworks to follow. With any luck, he’ll fall clear of the animal only after it has turned and leapt three times, or dashed out into the wide corridor that exits the field of play. If Vinoth is tossed prematurely, the triumph belongs to the bull and his owner.

Men at Avaniapuram, a municipality in Madurai district in the state of Tamil Nadu, try to grab a bull.

A successful ride brings prizes, but Vinoth would be here even if it didn’t. Men like him have been making their reputations clinging to the backs of bulls, and breaking open their bodies in the effort, for over a thousand years — since long before a win ever meant money, foreign cars or airline tickets.

In fact, for most of their history, jallikattu tournaments have resembled lively local fetes more than glamorous rodeo spectaculars. Until recently, few outside of a smattering of southern agrarian districts took much notice.

But that was before jallikattu was outlawed, before it was saved by a massive, unexpected popular uprising. Now the ancient Tamil bull-wrangling sport is in the heat of an unpredictable renaissance.

Vinoth would be out here regardless; he would have played the last three seasons, too, if it hadn’t been for the ban. But only in a moment like this one, in which jallikattu is electrified with new political meaning, does a man like Naga Ananth, a software engineer with soft hands, decide to make his debut.

Ananth, 29, is not a bull man. He’s a Royal Enfield motorbike man, a whiskey and cigarettes with friends man, a pressed collared shirt at the office man. He dreamed of a career in the navy, but when the entrance exams refused to go his way, he settled into the busiest highway of New Indian aspiration: a career in corporate IT, an urban life.

He’s also ardently Tamil, and during the last year of Ananth’s life, Tamil “sub-nationalism” has become powerfully identified with jallikattu.

It’s no stretch to say his decision to enter the arena at Palamedu, the second of the three big tournaments of Pongal, was more about politics than sport. Palamedu is his ancestral hometown, but his family isn’t the kind whose sons wrangle farm animals, so Ananth’s jallikattu “experience” is limited to a tentative dangle from the hump of a tied-up bull.

In the medical tent with his brother Bhubhanesh, a trainee chartered accountant, he jitters excitedly as he waits for their heat of 50 ridersto be shuffled into the ring. He shakes out his limbs and flickers timorous grins. When he finally treads out into view of the thronged bleachers and the television cameras, he is kicking himself for leaving it so late.

“I’ve wasted so much time,” he’ll say later.

When it is over — and it is over quickly, without glory or incident — he posts a photograph of himself and Bhubhanesh in their yellow jerseys on Facebook. He writes this caption: “Jallikattu fever of 2017 over… thanks to all youngster[s] and people who brought back our ultimate cultural game: JALLIKATTU.”

The first legal challenge to jallikattu’s existence came in 2006. A man named A. Nagaraja, whose son was killed in the arena, brought a case against the sport to the Madras High Court. In the years that followed, various animal welfare concerns took up the petition, and the case migrated to the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi. But until 2014, the petitioners’ victories were piecemeal: ramped up regulation, restrictions, temporary halts — never yet an outright abolition.

In January 2013, Dr. Manilal Valliyate, a veterinarian and PETA India staffer based in Delhi, was sent down to southern Tamil Nadu as part of an Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI)-authorised investigative team. His wasn’t the first such delegation, but the 2013 report, says Valliyate, “was the one that really made the difference.”

A veterinarian checks a bull during Palamedu, the second of the three big tournaments of Pongal.

Valliyate, now CEO of PETA India, had never been to a jallikattu event before. “It was horrendous,” he recalls. In the snaking, sun-baked chute leading to the gated vaadivassal stall, bulls were force-fed fluids he believes were alcoholic. Bull handlers beat animals, even bit their tails to force compliance. Inside the stall of the vaadivassal, nose ropes, laced through a tender, manmade piercing in the bull’s septum, were yanked before they were cut, and bulls reared in pain. Irritants were rubbed into the mucosa of the eyes. Bulls weren’t meant to die, but sometimes, in the chaos of it all, they did.

The jallikattu lovers I’ve spoken to don’t rule out the existence of cruelty in their sport, but they say it’s rare and aberrant; abusers are bad apples. Valliyate disagrees. Torment is intrinsic to jallikattu, he insists. “We have prey animals and predator animals. Bulls are prey animals. There is no such thing as an aggressive bull.” What passes for aggression in the ring, he says, is an expression of mortal terror.

When the team compiled their report that year, they took “more of an animal perspective,” according to Valliyate. Rather than simply indexing death and injury, their document made the case for the bulls’ psychological suffering.

A bull owner waits for his bull to be looked over by the veterinarian.

Another harvest-season cycle of jallikattu passed before the new evidence was considered at the Supreme Court. At Alanganallur, Vinothraj rode better than ever. Newspapers reported that he defeated 11 bulls (he remembers 16) to claim the “man of the match” title and a brand new Hero motorcycle. He was in his prime.

And then it was over.

On May 7, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that jallikattu caused unnecessary suffering, violating India’s 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Valliyate, who was present in the courtroom that day, remembers: “The best part of the judgement was that it went beyond jallikattu. The court reiterated the rights of animals and expanded the scope of the PCA Act.” For PETA it was another forward step on a long road.

To the jallikattu aficionados, it looked like a dead end. Raja Marthandan, a bull-owner and pro-jallikattu campaigner said later, “We had no hope of jallikattu coming back, that’s the truth.”

The revival began in 2017. It was Pongal time, and at Alanganallur’s abandoned arena, students and villagers gathered to agitate against the ban. Their protest caught and spread like fire. Within days, thousands were crowding the waterfront of the state capital, waving placards that read “Ban PETA” and “Save Jallikattu.”

“I couldn’t see the beach,” remembers Marthandan. “There were just people.”

It was a turbulent time in Tamil Nadu. Six weeks earlier, the state’s long-time leader, a powerhouse of Dravidian politics and former film star, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, had suddenly died. “Amma,” or “Mother,” as she was known to her reverent fans, had no natural successor — a leadership vacuum threatened. Then, just a week after Jayalalithaa’s death, Tamil Nadu was hit by a cyclone that caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damage.

Amid uncertainty, jallikattu was a rousing symbol. Diaspora protests sprang up as far away as London. PETA’s office in Norfolk, Virginia, was picketed. But it was Chennai’s Marina Beach that would give its name to the uprising.

Eventually, the protests would fracture into violence. Fake news swirled in the crowd — some protestors declared vegan PETA the agent of multi-national dairy corporations, seeking to corner the Indian market. PETA staff, including then-CEO Poorva Joshipura, became targets of online abuse, including threats of rape, a fact which shored up Joshipura’s conviction that jallikattu represents a crystallization of toxic masculinity.

But as Marthandan remembers it, the nearly weeklong, leaderless protest had the character of a carnival. People played traditional instruments, chanted slogans, held impromptu seminars. Marthandan trucked in an unusually docile pulikulam bull named Ramu, splendid in full tournament regalia, and led him from cluster to cluster, tent to tent, thanking protestors until his voice was raspy.

By the Friday, Naga Ananth and his friends had given up on going home at all. They spent the weekend nights bedded down by the beach. The microphone roved democratically: someone sang a folk song about farming, a group of trans women extemporised on the importance of Tamilness, a couple stood and asked the crowd to name their newborn. “I felt that energy,” Ananth says, “I’d never seen Tamil unity like that, in all my decades.”

The sport appeared to swell into a metonymy for Tamil identity — something that many felt was threatened by the Hindu-nationalist-led central government in New Delhi. Lose jallikattu, some seemed to fear, and the whole tapestry of Tamil culture could come apart.

“Tamil cultural heritage is not like groceries in a basket where you can pick some out and leave some,” says Manuraj Shunmugasundaram, a lawyer at the Madras High Court and spokesperson for the DMK, a major Tamil Nadu political party. “It’s more enmeshed than that.”

That Monday, January 23, 2017, the government of Tamil Nadu passed a new law — an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, exempting jallikattu. The bull sport was back.

But one year later, something unexpected is now threatening to destroy the sport anew: its own popularity.

It’s the day after Alanganallur 2018, and Vinoth is at home with third-place certificate and a limp. “Full body ache,” he grins.

Home is a chunk of flat, pale-earthed, palm-studded country near the city of Madurai, in the jallikattu heartland. Two generations ago, the family property spanned 60 acres of farmland, but over the years it has been nibbled down to just two.

It’s a familiar story: Tamil Nadu is pulling away from the land. A 2011 census classed nearly half of the state’s population as urban; just 20 years earlier two-thirds were rural. Now the suburbs reach toward the Navaneethan house. The family no longer work the fields; both Vinoth and his eldest sister are police officers in Madurai.

But the Navaneethan clan still think of themselves as farmers; they valorise what grows on this earth, perhaps most of all the hump-backed native cattle. Five or six bulls stand tethered on the family’s two ancestral acres now, and eat up most of Vinoth’s salary. He doesn’t care.

“He is my family member,” he says, of each animal in turn.

That Vinoth would ride bulls was more or less pre-ordained. His father, Navaneethan, a six-foot-two boulder of a man with a white handlebar moustache, displays his scars like a hieroglyphic record of his own achievements in the ring. Vinoth holds his toddler nephew, Aruth, who expertly barnacles, when lifted, to the hump of a roped, young bull. Vinoth jokes that the boy must take his place. In the Navaneethan family, jallikattu is a long-haul relay race.

It’s also an articulation of identity. On this diminished farm, bull riding is an act of fidelity to tradition; an antidote to anxieties about what has been lost.

Rider Vinothraj Navaneethan, falls while riding a bull in Alanganallur.

There are consequently mixed feelings about the fact that the farm outbuilding is choked with a supermarket sweep of jallikattu prizes: steel shelving units, ceiling fans, cookware, stacked plastic chairs (beneath which snoozes Ricky Ponting, the pug), three bicycles still swaddled in card and plastic. Proud as he is of his many victories, Vinoth would be happier without the trinkets, a modern addition to the sport. He says he rides “for name only — and for passion.”

But the “jallikattu fever” that surfed in on the tide of the Marina protests turned out to have commercial power, and the sponsored prizes at Alanganallur this year — including a Renault Kwik, a Hyundai, and tickets to Singapore — were more valuable than any before.

Vinoth worries that money and hype are twisting the heart out of the sport. “Inside jallikattu our unity is gone,” he says. He’s not alone in noting incipient schisms in the jallikattu community; the unifying enemy of the ban is gone. There’s a chance that the salvation of the sport always carried inside it the seed of the tradition’s demise.

Marthandan’s newest bull does not yet have a name, but naming on the jallikattu scene tends toward the predictable, so “Blackie” is a reasonable projection. His black is that dense, untarnished black that flummoxes depth perception; tethered in the shade, he looks like a stenciled ideal of a bull, the kind that the protestors wore across their t-shirts on Marina Beach.

“His bone structure is awesome,” says Marthandan, scratching the bull’s rump. His foot-long horns are “beautifully shaped; actually, perfectly shaped.”

He is not tall, but burly, with a powerful neck split into two compact loaves of muscle along a central line. His hump, high and conical, deviates from stud standard, Marthandan notes, now exercising his breeder’s eye. Strictly speaking, it shouldn’t taper front-to-back — though the hump’s shape will mitigate its competitively disadvantageous jut. A more prominent hump is easier to grab, but a tapered one is tricky to keep hold of when the bull begins to buck. And this bull should really “play” — some months ago he gored a man to death.

Although the bull is being readied for his first tournament, his regimen is gentle. He grazes a scrubby, sun-patterned paddock, is taken swimming in a nearby pond to build muscle. He eats a bespoke feed, blended of legumes, cotton-seed, and bran. He doesn’t earn his keep, and he isn’t expected to. He’s unlikely ever to win back his hefty purchase price: 1.1 lakh rupees ($1,636) in cash, with a bull-calf from Marthandan’s pulikulam stud herd thrown in.

Marthandan isn’t complaining. Like Vinoth, he’s a purist who flinches at the prospect of a commercialised “entertainment jallikattu.” Marthandan believes jallikattu has no business making good business sense.

But high prices mean breed survival. During the years of the ban, Marthandan’s male pulikulam weanlings, aged four or five months, only found a market at the butchers, where they sold for around $20. Since the ban was lifted, these arena-bound purebreds have fetched upwards of $133 — the cost of a life worth keeping.

Once, south Indian draught cattle, good for muscle but bad for milk, were valuable for their labor and the fertilizer they produced. Bull sports were secondary — “only a celebration of their might,” Marthandan explains. Then came machines and chemical inputs. Now jallikattu is the last rationale for their existence, and its potentially abrupt end risks ushering in the slower end of these humpbacked breeds. The bulls’ future is hitched to what many call an unjustifiable cruelty.

The ban has been lifted, but the court battles are far from over. Manuraj Shunmugasundaram describes jallikattu as currently existing on “some sort of legislative life support.”

PETA India and other groups have appealed the Tamil Nadu law re-legalizing jallikattu to the Supreme Court. Late last year, it was decided the challenge should be heard by the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench, which will determine whether the bull sport qualifies as a “cultural right.”

When that will happen and what the outcome will be is difficult to judge. Suhrith Parthasarathy, a lawyer who practices at both the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court explains, “There’s nothing to suggest on a reading of our Constitution that animal rights stand on a greater footing than cultural rights. Intuitively, we might feel it should be so, but you can’t get there without interpreting the Constitution in a certain manner. I hope they are able to achieve the right result. But this is a very hard case to resolve.”

Ash, rubbed into the bull’s hump by its handlers before it enters the ring, appears to billow as riders try to grab hold.

Dr. Manilal Valliyate, who says that PETA’s 2018 investigation revealed unchanged levels of cruelty, is convinced that the last victory will “belong to the animals.” What “victory for the animals” means remains contested — both sides say they are fighting for the bulls.

The future of jallikattu hangs in the balance, but one thing is sure: the bull boys of southern Tamil Nadu know how to hold on tight. That said, even the best among them don’t always last the course.