Jallikattu is an ancient sport of Tamil Nadu. Many believe that one of the images unearthed during excavations of the Indus Valley civilization is an image of a person fighting a bull during Jallikattu. There are references to bull fighting in ancient Tamil literature from periods as old as the days of Tholkappiam, which is believed to have been written more than two thousand years ago.
In our country traditional cultural practices are in some way or the other connected with temples, God, spirituality, Nature or some other higher force whose reign extends beyond the day-to-day physical world. So, too, Jallikattu is more than just a sport.
In order to understand why, in the current agitation, Jallikattu has become a symbol of Tamil culture and has grown within a couple of days into a movement that united Tamils living all over the world into one agitated mass, let us understand the significance of Pongal as a Tamil festival and the connection between Pongal and Jallikattu.
Like Lohari in Punjab, Pongal is a festival of harvesting in Tamil Nadu. It is a festival of thanksgiving to Mother Nature. Pongal is celebrated by following a practice of worship that goes beyond organized religions and is followed by all Tamilians, irrespective of their caste and creed.
Sugarcane, pods of turmeric and some other items of farm produce are distributed to friends during Pongal. However, the main activity is the boiling of rice in sugarcane juice to produce a sweet rice dish. Interestingly, the practice of cooking this type of kheer in sugarcane-juice in Lohari is common in Punjab too. But there is one significant difference.
The practice in Pongal is not just to prepare sugarcane kheer but to allow it to boil out. This boiling symbolises the generous bounty of nature. The implication is that nature has given so much that our vessels are not able to contain Her gifts.
The Day of the Ox
Pongal is celebrated over four days, with each day focusing on one activity. The first day is for the disposal of old articles, so that the farmer may prepare himself and his family for new life. The second day is when rice is boiled. The third day is Maattu Pongal when the bulls are taken for worship to a temple and Jallikattu is organised. The fourth day is Kaanum Pongal during which people go around meeting their friends and relatives and share gifts with them.
The four-part festival, thus, provides for the four important needs of a farmer’s family.
‘Maattu’ means bull. On the Maattu Pongal day, the farmers decorate their bulls and take them to the temple. They also take them round the village as a proud exhibition of how they have been maintaining the bulls that have helped them till their lands. The bull, in that sense, is a hardworking member of the family that helps them produce the life-giving food-grains. This is what M. Thambithurai, the Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha, meant when he led a group of 27 MPs to meet the Prime Minister and said that the bull is a member of one’s family.
How does Jallikattu figure in all this, and how should one understand the problems that it got into during the past one decade?
If the bull is a member of the family of a Tamil farmer, then a growing-up youngster of the family who prides himself in his bravery and physical prowess would like to test his strength against the bull. Seen in this light, the bull-fight then becomes a wrestling match between two members of a family or two brave beings within a village.
This is how the practice of Jallikattu arose. The word ‘Jalli’ is believed to mean ‘coins of money’. ‘Kattu’ means to tie. So, the name Jallikattu may have come from a practice in which the owner of the bull would tie to the horn of his bull a piece of cloth containing some coins. Whoever was able to subdue the bull would get the coins as a prize.
The traditional sport of Jallikattu in which two fighters --- one human and the other animal --- challenged each other underwent deterioration during the past few decades, as has been the case with most old practices. Instead of showing their bravery in taming the bull, many youngsters began to torture it by pouncing in large numbers on the same bull and, at times, even biting its tail or causing other injuries.
Dragging in Jallikattu
Such debasing practices led the Madras High Court to ban Jallikattu in 2006. The judgment was given in a case that had been brought against the torture of animals during races of bullock carts called “reklar races”. The High Court brought in Jallikattu, which was not in fact the cause of the case, and observed, “Jallikattu is no more fun or veer vilayattu (a brave sport) but clearly a violation of animal rights and perpetration of cruelty on hapless animals.”
The recent agitation and the legal amendment brought in its wake has brought to the fore a sport that had been virtually forgotten by those who had shifted from villages to the urban areas. The new lease of life the festival now gets will hopefully make it more systematic and take it beyond the purview of local committees and make it a sport worth a wider notice.
The entire nation is amazed by the build up that moved the Union Government and the State Government to act with great speed and resolve an issue that had been hanging fire for a decade. The organised manner in which thousands of men and women, home-keepers, and even children gathered and agitated in a peaceful manner took the viewers by surprise. It has emerged as a model of a new form of mass organisation where the social media acted as the means to connect Tamils living all over the world. The violence at the end, however, also showed the sinister implications of the build-up.
Fear of damage
Looking back at the agitation, one is able to discern two facts --- first, that there was a widespread feeling that Tamil culture is likely to suffer damage unless all persons of Tamil origin stand together to protect it, and second, that some organisations, working behind the scenes knew how to build this feeling into a mass movement.
The agitation that developed around the general theme of protecting Tamil culture received participation from groups of ideological complexions extending from a purely cultural and apolitical concern at one end to an alleged use of anti-national slogans on the other. The Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mylapore, who addressed the agitators and tried to convince them to give up their agitation referred to infiltration of anti-social elements into the crowds. The Commissioner of Police of Chennai also mentioned that anti-social elements were responsible for the violence that occurred towards the end of the agitation. Music Director Hip-hop Tamizha put up a Facebook post informing his fans why he had decided to move out of the agitation. He mentioned some activities of a totally anti-national nature undertaken by some members of the crowd.
Subramanyam Swami has gone as far as to say that the violence was organized by ISI. One may not dismiss this off-hand, because evidence of the ISI having established a base in Sri Lanka with plans to cause disturbance in Tamil Nadu had surfaced some months ago.
There was a predominance of black shirts and black flags, indicating that the groups which propagate the need for a stronger Tamil identity and a sense of Tamil nationalism participated in large numbers.
The fact that the organization of the crowd was not completely voluntary came out clearly when, after the governments at the centre and in the state had gone out of the way to solve the problem, the protesters refused to budge and, instead, brought up tougher demands. Their adamancy indicated a more sinister agenda than the revocation of a ban on Jallikattu.
Whatever might have been the behind-the-scenes operations of the organizers the overall response of the youth made it clear that their pent up feelings found expression through the build-up of crowds. The most prominent theme of this build-up was a complete lack of faith in the sincerity of politicians. This build-up reminded one of a similar one against corruption when Anna Hazare gave a call. The frustration of the youth and their lack of trust in the system needs to be addressed by the society.
The agitation has received universal appreciation. The Governor and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the television channels and leaders of various political parties have praised the peaceful manner in which the agitation was conducted. Many have called it the ‘Thai Puratchi’ or the revolution that occurred during the month of Thai. Some have even compared it with the satyagraha during the struggle for India’s freedom.
While one may appreciate the way the youngsters exhibited extreme discipline and control until the last day’s violence, one may not feel comfortable about a mechanism where the system fails to address genuine grievances until a build-up that has potential of causing public disorder.
In spite of the universal appreciation received by the protesters, one has to acknowledge that the majority of the members of the crowd did not exhibit enough knowledge about the subtleties of legal processes and the need to maintain the sanctity of fundamental institutions.
Mass uprisings cannot be made the usual way of resolving issues. The nation, as a whole, needs to cogitate and find ways and means of strengthening the institutions rather than weakening them.
The handling of the situation by the Government of Tamil Nadu has been immaculate. The Chief Minister was able to delicately balance the need for resolving the issue with the obligation to respect the laws of the land. O. Panneerselvam is known for maintaining his calm in the most stressful situations and he exhibited this quality of mind in handling the present agitation. Now he will have to undertake a deeper review of the events and take long-term steps.
As a nation we must confront some fundamental questions brought into focus by the Jallikattu agitation and its resolution by the government. Do the events not compromise the authority of the highest court of the country that is supposed to act as the bulwark of the constitution?
Does the existing system of handling such socio-cultural issues by a court of law suffer from some gap that needs to be filled? The politicians and the bureaucrats are in touch with the ground realities of our society. Both these categories of people mingle with the masses and know their pulse. Do the judges get such an opportunity? In case of absence of such an opportunity, are they in a position to adjudicate issues connected with the emotions of the people? In case the courts must necessarily take a view on such situations, should such a view be only advisory or should it binding on the parties? Is there need to provide mechanisms by which the judges might be able to get a clear picture about cultural and social issues?
These questions now become relevant because, unfortunately, one-by-one the supreme authority of the judiciary seems to be getting compromised. It is in our interest to ensure this authority should not be compromised in any way.
With greater intermingling of people and with easier modes of collecting like-minded people around a theme of a real or imagined discrimination against a social, caste, regional or linguistic group there is need for building stronger bridges and bringing about better communication. Perhaps others like me who grew up in one culture and then adopted another need to play a more active role as cultural bridges.
(The writer is a former Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu)
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