Jallikattu emerges as saviour

Since the ban on Jallikattu was removed in 2017, the indigenous Pulikulam breed of cattle has witnessed a gracious revival with more breeders now conscious of conservation

Out of India's 37 indigenous cattle breeds, a large number comes from Tamil Nadu. These include the Kangeyam, Thiruchengodu, Bargur, Palamalai, Alambadi, Kollimalai, Vadakarai, Manapparai, Umbalachery, Irucchali, Pulikulam, Thambiran madu, Thenpandi, Thondainadu, Thurinjithalai and Punganur.

Out of these, the Pulikulam breed, a native of the Sivagangai district, is mainly used for Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. Jallikattu, otherwise known as 'Eru Thazhuvuthal' (Tamil for 'Bull Embracing'), is a sport that has been played in southern Tamil Nadu during Thai Pongal since the Sangam Period.

With the advent of green revolution, due to farm mechanisation, the use of draught animals has decreased drastically. According to the last Livestock Census of India, while the indigenous cattle population has decreased considerably, exotic and crossbred cattle have witnessed a simultaneous increase. Indigenous breeds and hybrids with dominant native genes produce A2 milk, which is good for human health. Jallikattu is considered to be a bio-cultural sport as it helps to conserve native cattle breeds. But, fortunately or unfortunately, the Supreme Court of India banned Jallikattu on May 7, 2014, based on a plea by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

I personally feel that the ban was a blessing in disguise. That is because, in the past, when the event was organised without proper regulations, many young men who participated in the bullfights had lost their lives, leaving their wives and children widowed and orphaned. The participating bulls were tortured as their tails were bitten and they were fed with alcohol to become more ferocious. The bull tamers were also in the habit of consuming alcohol before joining the event.

But, the massive, unprecedented and peaceful protest organised by the people of Tamil Nadu, referred to as the 'Jallikattu Uprising', in support of Jallikattu, forced the Government of India to clear the ordinance proposed by the Tamil Nadu government and a suitable order was issued during January 2017, as an attempt to preserve the cultural heritage of Tamil Nadu and ensure the survival and well-being of native bull breeds. Subsequent to the order permitting the sport, many restrictions were imposed for the safe and smooth conduct of bullfights. Medical check-ups for both, the participating men and bulls were made compulsory, with necessary dos and don'ts to avoid any untoward incidents. On the other side, if the sport is banned permanently, the Pulikulam breed may also vanish gradually.

The sale prices of this breed had plummeted to an all-time low, in and around Madurai, because of the ban on Jallikattu. When there was a ban on the sport, the condition of the Pulikulam was miserable. People were not ready to accept any newborn calf even free of cost. Instead, they started demanding money from the owners of the animals. Farmers started selling the bulls to slaughterhouses of Kerala. But, once due permission was granted by both governments, the entire situation changed. Those who were interested in rearing Pulikulam bulls started bribing cowherds to inform of the delivery of a male calf after noticing a pregnant cow in the herd. A newborn Pulikulam calf fetches around Rs 10,000 per head.

The staging of cattle fairs helps farmers identify viable stock, which ensures a vigorous progeny. We can have sustainable agriculture only through native cattle breeds as they help in pest control, maintaining soil health alongside yielding milk with minimum maintenance cost. Besides, they are resistant to Climate Change.

The Pulikulam breed

The breed derives its name from the village from where it originates: Pulikulam in Sivagangai district. It is said that this village derived its name 'Pulikulam' (Tiger Pond) a few centuries back, because of the presence of tigers in the dense forests that used to quench their thirst in the village pond. It is said that the bulls of the village were capable of fighting ferociously with tigers. It is also bred in Madurai, Virudhunagar and Theni districts in Tamil Nadu.

'Palingu maadu', 'Mani maadu', 'Jallikattu maadu', 'Mattu maadu' and 'Kilakattu maadu' are the other names of this breed. This indigenous breed is popularly used for Jallikattu. It is a drought-resistant breed and is used as a draught breed rather than for milk production as the yield is less compared to other breeds. It supplies good manure and muscle power for ploughing the land, thus contributing significantly to organic farming.

The Pulikulam's population of around 90,000 in 1995 has come down drastically to about 16,000 animals in recent years, in and around Madurai district. In the past, the Yadava community made up 99 per cent of cowherds rearing the Pulikulam, while the remaining 1 per cent was from the Mukkulathor community. But now, the trend has changed. Many people of different communities rear this breed for the sake of Jallikattu as it is considered to be a prestigious sport.

In the past, this breed was maintained in the villages from October up to the harvest season in January and then would be let loose in the nearby hills and forests for grazing. But the restrictions by the forest department for grazing and penning inside the forests led to the dwindling of their numbers. Today, these animals are penned overnight in the fields of private individuals where their urine and dung fertilises the soil. Farmers from Kerala pay Rs 10 for a kg of this breed's dung, which is used as manure for cash crops such as pepper and cardamom.

This breed is resistant to foot-and-mouth disease, tuberculosis and brucellosis. Generally, the males will be dark grey in colour, while the females will be white or grey. While the males have large humps, the females have small ones. The bulls are very vigorous, strong and swift. They are aggressive and have a strong power of endurance. The price of a six-month-old male calf is Rs 20,000-Rs 25,000. If a mature bull is undefeated in Jallikattu, its price can go up to Rs 5 lakh.

The Breed Registration Committee (BRC) of National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) under the control of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has approved and registered Pulikulam breed as an indigenous breed with the accession number '01 Pulikulam Tamil Nadu INDIA_CATTLE _1800PULIKUOLAM_03035'.

The future

Jallikatttu events were organised only in a few places in and around Madurai in the past. But, after the ordinance permitting the event was passed in 2017, Jallikattu is now organised in a grand manner in many parts of the state, with proper procedure after getting due permission from the concerned district collector. The mega Jallikattu organised in Viralimalai of Pudukottai district on January 20, 2019, with 1,353 bulls and around 500 tamers, has created a world record. Though medical centres and emergency operation theatres were arranged in advance to treat persons with simple as well as grievous injuries, two persons were gored to death. Fortunately, insurance has now been introduced for the first time, not only for the tamers and the bulls but also for spectators. Valuable prizes distributed to the best bull-tamers and the owners of the best bulls include two cars, 10 motorcycles, 700 bicycles, gold and silver coins and home appliances.

Thus, the lifting of the ban on Jallikattu, a historical sport considered to be a sign of bravery in Tamil Nadu, has helped the survival and betterment of the rare Pulikulam breed.

(The author is President, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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