The year was 2000. I had just graduated with an engineering degree in Electronics & Communication and realised that I was just not cut for it. When my friend and I presented our final year project, the external examiners were laughing so hard there were tears in their eyes. That was my first clue.
I was an only child and my indulgent parents didn't push me to get an IT job, as was all the rage. I would have killed myself rather than write a single line of code.
So I did what every unemployed youth did back in the day: I started an event-management company.
What they don't tell you though was that no event-management company ever made money. Ever.
So one December, my partner Jayaraj and I were sitting across this Field Promotions Manager at Colgate-Palmolive, desperately attempting to wrangle a gig out of him. Did he want a rain-dance for teens, or maybe a school-quiz, how about a pattimandram for his dealers….?
No, No...No he says.
“Our focus this year is all rural. We are launching Colgate Super Shakthi Toothpaste and we want to target the rural & semi-urban audience. Give me something that will work in those centres.”
“A rain-dance in a village..?” I’m thinking. I used to love rain-dances, for obvious reasons.
The FPM then says these magic words.
“How great it would be to sponsor an event like the Alanganallur Jallikattu.”
And then he said the very words that sealed the deal.
“We would pay anything for it.”
To quote Homer:
“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken”
“ Ha ha ha...oh my God..” I laughed, “Alanganallur is my hometown.”
Actually, my hometown is Dindigul and it was the first time I had heard of the place, but being broke is the mother of invention.
“I will be back” I said.
We rushed to an internet parlour to Google Alanganallur. Bear with me, it was the 00’s.
By evening, we were on a train to Madurai. By the morning of the next day, we were in conversation with the Panchayat Thalaivar of Alanganallur in a rickety old office. In exchange for painting the town red with Colgate Super Shakthi, we offered to sponsor all kinds of prizes. He took us across to meet the Oor Periyavanga; a stalwart group of six men straight out of a KS Ravikumar movie. After a lot of haggling, we bagged it.
We were then taken to see the place where the event took place.
I was shocked!
It was just a narrow street. A narrow street about half a km long.
Is this where lakhs of people would congregate?!
There was a large enclosure in which the bulls would be assembled and a narrow wicket-gate of sorts called the vaadi vaasal out of which they would be released, one by one into the street.
Our next stop was to see Alanganallur’s very own pride and joy, their bull. The bull is traditionally raised by the Muniyandi Saamy temple in the village. We found the bull languidly chewing on the choicest food being fed to him by a designated feeder. He was a terrifyingly large fellow who was evidently used to the royal lifestyle. The mind boggled at the damage he would inflict at close quarters in a narrow street.
Tour over, we thanked the village elders and left for Chennai.
A day later, we triumphantly marched into Colgate's offices and waved our deal in their faces. Needless to say the contract was ours.
A team of six of us left for Alanganallur. We spent the next fortnight there, painting walls, erecting arches, handing out banners, all in Colgate Super Shakthi’s fiery red.
The story of those two weeks will make for another article. Let's do that another day.
Anyway two days before D-Day, the day after Pongal (Kaanam Pongal), the metamorphosis began. Medais - temporary stage-like structures from which people could view the action - started going up all over the street. These were erected at a height of about 8 feet with a rope “staircase” at the back. I remember thinking it would probably be safer to fight the bulls than stand on one of those.
The position and size of the medai spoke to the prestige of the owner and the hierarchy had been in place for decades. Newcomers though we were, our title-sponsor card bought us a nice, fair-sized medai right next to the vaadi-vaasal.
The whole town took on a festive look and a palpable sense of excitement was in the air. It was clear that these people lived for that one day.
Finally D-Day dawned.
Our team was up and about by 4.30 am. Shortly, the hometown bull was taken by the panchayat thalaivar and other village elders to the Muniyandi temple where it was decorated, its horns painted and sharpened, and prayers offered. It was then led back and was the first bull to enter the enclosure.
Soon a procession of prize-bulls, led by their proud owners from all over the land started trooping in. It was a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Many of the bulls were even larger than the Alanganallur one and every one of them had a look in their eye that said “just give me a reason a#@$*!!”
The procession of hundreds of these magnificent snorting and stamping beasts looked like a scene straight out of a history book. It was evident that this was an old, medieval tradition that had survived the ages.
The audience was swelling in thousands by the minute. By 8 am, at least a few lakh people were thronging that small idyllic town!
A small stream ran through the town and on the banks of it, rows upon rows of monster andaas were boiling in pork gravy and the aroma hung thickly in the air. Even that early in the morning, huge swarms of people in high-spirits were making a beeline for the andaas.
The Panchayat thalaivar had very kindly given us a local young man as a guide and he kept exhorting us to take our place on the designated medai as soon as possible as there was a real danger of being caught in a stampede.
So our team and some of Colgate's local brass pushed and jostled our way to our medai and managed to climb up to it. Eventually, the first bull was released to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd.
If you don’t know what Jallikattu entails, now is the time to tell you. There is NO bullfight, there is NO taming. You just have to see how big those things are to understand how laughable a notion that is. An average bull weighs upwards of a ton. A TON!
The usual sequence is this: a bull comes charging out of the vaadi vaasal and runs headlong towards the exit. If a person from among the crowd manages to hang on to its hump for a reasonable distance; I forget exactly how much, he is deemed a winner. He usually gets a small gold-coin, some clothes and some vessels. That's it.
Over the past few days, I’ve been seeing all kinds of fancy conjecture about what goes on during Jallikattu from social media warriors. There was even talk of some matador-style stabbing!
I can tell you this, any punter who tries to harm the bull is not getting out of there alive. If the bull doesn't get him, its owner will.
Anyway, on that day, around 300 bulls were released. Among them were a few who were the box-office stars. These bulls did not charge head-long from the entrance, instead they emerged at a trot and then stood still and gave the crowd the eye. It's a throwing down of the gauntlet.
The bull slowly turns around in a semicircle and eyes the crowd disdainfully. It seems to say “I'm not afraid of you”. This is called ninnu vilayadrathu (stand & play). These bulls get the loudest cheers and make their owners proud.
When finally the last bull had been released, it was nearly 3 pm but the revelry continued late into the evening.
My company continued to be involved with Jallikattu for the next two years and it will always remain one of the defining experiences of my life.
As somebody who has had an in-depth first hand experience, let me weigh in on the debate that's been raging around Jallikattu.
First of all, a fairly large number of people care about it and it’s the highlight of the year for them, especially in the villages and towns around Madurai. For the people who breed the bulls, it’s a large part of their lives and livelihood. Jallikattu is also quite evidently a cultural-symbol that Tamilians are proud of. It does take a fair bit of valour to put oneself in the path of a charging bull.
Now let's come to real issue - Is Jallikattu cruel to the bulls?
The animals are definitely not physically harmed during the actual run. Are they frightened into running by the huge crowd? I would have to say for about 2 minutes, most of them probably are. But here’s the thing, by that logic, almost all human-animal interaction would need be banned. Starting from zoos to ox-drawn carts to temple elephants and horse-racing to caged birds and animals in movies and even pets on leashes. There is usually some time when the animal is uncomfortable or afraid and yet, all of these other things take place without a hassle. Also remember, that apart from that short time, these bulls lead comfortable lives.
Now there is one more contentious issue. There are a lot of rural legends about what goes on in the enclosure behind the vaadi vaasal. There is talk that the bulls are given liquour and that the owners bite their tails to infuriate them before releasing them. While there is no evidence to support this and I didn't see any, they cannot be dismissed outright.
The enclosure, however, is a fairly manageable size and could quite easily be brought under the strict supervision of authorities. Fear of perpetual disqualification and a hefty fine should deter any errant owner.
So yes, let the bull-shitting stop.
I support Jallikattu.
(The writer is the director of ‘Tamizh Padam’ and the to-be-released ‘Rendavathu Padam’)