Jallikattu Bulls and Tamers: TN’s Style Icons Since 1,000 BC

Jallikattu bulls and tamers have been TN's style icons for over 3,000 years! Here's how.

Art and Culture
6 min read
The Jallikattu bull, tamer and grower are all indelible icons of Tamil culture. Sakthi with his bull.

Rajinikanth in and as the Murattu Kaalai (angry bull)!

Ilayathalapthi Vijay is Mersal (awesome) as the Jallikattu Kaalai (Jallikattu bull)!

Captain Vijayakanth is Ayyanar, the village warrior God.

Six pack superstar Vishal is the Sandakozhi, the fighter cock!

Tamil cinema, and pop culture, is indebted to Jallikattu and the rural hinterlands around Madurai for almost all of the tropes used to elevate its heroes to superhuman status.

Here are a few examples from everyday life of Jallikattu bull owners and tamers in Palamedu, a village near Madurai. Mark the striking resemblance to the antics of on-screen heroes who are worshipped (literally) across Tamil Nadu.

What is surprising is that these cultural style statements are the norm not just in the villages but even among the urban youth in Chennai, Coimbatore and other metropolitan cities.

The Ayyanar Effect: The Hero = Village God = Bull Grower

Rainikanth in a still from Padayappa.
Rainikanth in a still from Padayappa.
(Photo Courtesy: Thiraikadal)

In Padayappa (1999), Rajinikanth plays a larger than life (as usual) hero, who can tame a Jallikattu bull just by staring it down. He protects the village from evil, and is beyond scrutiny. In short, he is nothing short of the village deity, Ayyanar.

This avatar of Rajinikanth was such a hit that till date Padayappa remains one of the most successful films of the superstar. And the idea of equating the hero to the village god is straight out of rural parlance, where Jallikattu bull owners and tamers are seen as the protector deities of the village.

Sakthi and his bull flanked by the village deity.
Sakthi and his bull flanked by the village deity.
(Photo: Vikram Venkateswaran)

Sakthi is a 26-year-old bull owner from Palamedu near Madurai. It is he who rears the bull, nurtures it and holds the secrets of selective breeding and horticulture passed through generations. It is Sakthi who safeguards the identity of the village. Like the Ayyanar.

Across rural Tamil Nadu, Ayyanar is the warrior god who protects the four corners of a village. There's an Ayyanar temple in every village, and it is not uncommon to name children Ayyanar, or Karuppa (the Black one). It is also the norm to equate the Jallikattu bull owner to the Ayyanar of the village.

Only the wisest and strongest of a village is seen as the Ayyanar. He is beyond scrutiny, and has the licence to kill, in the eyes of the village folk. Something Kamal Haasan drew from in the climax of his film Devar Magan.

Sandakozhi! — Fighter Cock

Sandakozhi now also has a sequel, and though it's not as cult as the first film, it has a fanbase. The term Sandakozhi (fighter cock) is typically given to someone who picks a fight at the drop of a hat, and usually wins.

It's a phrase that was born thanks to the sport and culture of cock fights. There are references to this sport from as early as the Sangam era (over 2,000 years ago). And like with today's cinema, the poems and songs of ancient Tamil Nadu were often filled with lines describing the hero as a Sandakozhi, whose sword is like the beak of the bird.

Jayakumar and his fighter cock.
Jayakumar and his fighter cock.
(Photo: Vikram Venkateswaran)

Jayakumar is a third generation Kozhi Sandai (cock fight) contestant. He knows everything about his Sandakozhi (fighter cock), including how to resuscitate it when it's unconscious, and how to remove toxins from its body.

Aadukalam, an award winning film that also became a blockbuster, starring Dhanush, is inspired by the culture of rearing Sandakozhis. It's about boys like Jayakumar, and their relationship with their fighter cocks.

What has a Sandakozhi to do with Jallikattu? The two sports are interdependent. Rather, cock fighting as a sport and as a sub-culture cannot exist without Jallikattu.

Tamil Nadu's native breed of chicken are prized the world over for their meat and the flavour of eggs. Like with Jallikattu, the science of cross-breeding, and creating new breeds of heat and disease resistant poultry is spearheaded by cock fighting.

And what is interesting is that the bravado, fan following and loyalty that this game commands in the villages, is reflected in Tamil cinema, and the language spoken by urban Tamils!

Dhanush in a still from Aadukalam.
Dhanush in a still from Aadukalam.
(Photo Courtesy: Upperstall)

PATTAI – Sacred Ash, Vermilion, And Sass

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    Rajinikanth sporting a Pattai in Arunachalam.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
    Rajinikanth sporting a Pattai in Arunachalam.
  • 02/02
    Vijay wearing sacred ash and vermilion in Bigil.(Photo Courtesy: seesoonest)
    Vijay wearing sacred ash and vermilion in Bigil.

In the opening shot of the hero entry song of the Rajinikanth film Arunachalam, the superstar smears his forehead with sacred ash. While the song is set in the temple, that's about as religious as the movie gets. It was all about the sacred ash look.

In other words, the Pattai (band) of sacred ash.

In 2019's Bigil, starring Ilayathalapathy Vijay, the father-Vijay sports a more subtle version of the Pattai, with both sacred ash and vermilion, but as two tiny streaks between the brows.

This is significant, because in the movie, Vijay's character is a Christian. The Pattai, in this case too, is all about the look.

And Kollywood heroes all have the villagers of TN to thank, for this sartorial (google it) phenomenon!

'Mama', sporting a pattai.
'Mama', sporting a pattai.
(Photo: Vikram Venkateswaran)

Simply called 'mama' (uncle) by friends, family, and even those elder to him, Karuppan is a walking encyclopedia on bull-rearing, breeding, and cock fights. That he's also a walking dictionary of Tamil cuss words is common knowledge.

His Pattai is his identity, and one he wears with some swagger. After all, even the superstar endorses it!

Virumandi, The Bull Tamer!

MGR, Sivaji, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Sarath Kumar and every Tamil hero in between have had at least one scene in one of their films where they tame the Jallikattu bull.

I haven't mentioned Ramarajan here, because all of his movies are set in rural TN anyway.

Taming the bull, either literally or figuratively (by beating up bad guys), is the rite of passage for Tamil cinema heroes who want to make it big.

The Jallikattu sport is at least over 2,300 years old. While it was once the only way to for a man to prove his worth, it continues to be a symbol of valour, courage and virility.
Muthu is a three-time champion bull tamer.
Muthu is a three-time champion bull tamer.
(Photo: Vikram Venkateswaran)

Muthu is all of twenty five, and has been participating in Jallikattu ever since the ban was lifted in 2017. He is a role model to other youngsters in the village. And thanks to social media, he is aware of the influence a bull tamer has in the urban landscape.

"Only a bull grower can be a champion bull tamer. I know what the bull is thinking and how it will move. I alone can guess how intelligent it is."

Pongal releases are all about tingling the nerve endings of Tamil identity. This has been the trend for over seven years now, where every succeeding year has growing slightly more direct in the way it panders to this theme.

This year's Pattas (Dhanush), last year's Petta (Rajinikanth) and Viswasam (Ajith) all have a rural setting, and a backdrop of Jallikattu, or the culture that is inspired by the sport.

That it is pervasive is not much of a surprise, considering it's been around for thousands of years. What is surprising is that it is still in vogue in the urban setting, among youngsters who don't know where their veggies grow.

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