The bull-taming sport is popular in Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai, and Dindigul districts, known as the Jallikattu belt. Jallikattu is celebrated in the second week of January, during the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. A tradition over 2,000 years old, Jallikattu is a competitive sport as well as an event to honor bull owners who rear them for mating. It is a violent sport in which contestants try to tame a bull for a prize; if they fail, the bull owner wins the prize.

In an age when the farm sector is largely mechanized, there are no major monetary benefits for bull owners in breeding Jallikattu bulls other than the prizes they get during the Jallikattu events. Traditionally, these used to be a dhoti, a towel, betel leaves, bananas, and a cash prize of Rs 101. Over the last two decades, the prizes have included grinders, a fridge, and small furniture.

Jallikattu is considered a traditional way for the peasant community to preserve their pure-breed native bulls. At a time when cattle breeding is often an artificial process, conservationists and peasants argue that Jallikattu is a way to protect these male animals which are otherwise used only for meat if not for ploughing. Kangayam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery, Barugur and Malai Maadu are among the popular native cattle breeds used for Jallikattu. The owners of these premium breeds command respect locally.

In India, legal battles surrounding animal rights issues emerged in the early 1990s. A notification from the Environment Ministry in 1991 banned the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and dogs, which was challenged by the Indian Circus Organisation in the Delhi High Court. In 1998, dogs were excluded from the notification.

Jallikattu first came under legal scrutiny in 2007 when the Animal Welfare Board of India and the animal rights group PETA moved petitions in the Supreme Court against Jallikattu as well as bullock cart races. The Tamil Nadu government, however, worked its way out of the ban by passing a law in 2009, which was signed by the Governor. In 2011, the UPA regime at the Centre added bulls to the list of animals whose training and exhibition are prohibited. That is the subject of a case pending in the Supreme Court. The state government has legalized these events, which has been challenged in court.

In January 2017, months after the death of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, massive protests erupted across Tamil Nadu against the ban, with Chennai city witnessing a 15-day-long Jallikattu uprising. The same year, the Tamil Nadu government released an ordinance amending the central Act and allowing Jallikattu in the state; this was later ratified by the President. PETA challenged the state move, arguing it was unconstitutional.

In January of last year, Tamil Nadu residents gathered in the thousands on Chennai’s Marina Beach. “Preserve our tradition,” they cried in support of a sport many of them had not even witnessed. The top court had banned the sport – traditionally held during the harvest festival of Pongal – in 2014, citing a constitutional obligation to show compassion to animals. It had upheld the ban in 2016.

The demonstration at Marina Beach, which was largely organized on social media and lasted a week, soon turned into a celebration of Tamil pride with people from various professions – information technology workers, lawyers, and students among others – professing their love for their Tamil identity. “Tamilians have been bending for so many years, we have to stand up now,” declared one 25-year-old who worked in a garment store.

Some linked the Jallikattu movement to the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu when students had taken to the streets to oppose the imposition of Hindi as the state’s official language. Others compared it with Arab Spring, a series of anti-government movements in West Asia in 2010 that toppled several prominent regimes.

The Marina Beach protests went on to become a turning point in the lives of many participants. Several young professionals who were part of the swelling crowds are now rearing native bulls as a hobby while others have taken up farming and other socio-environmental initiatives.

Under a row of tents in an open area in South Chennai last weekend, hundred-odd farm animals native to Tamil Nadu – including 30 breeds of bulls, goats, sheep, and even dogs – were showcased to a curious audience. They had gathered there for the Sempulam livestock festival, organised by the Dhenu Cattle Conservation Foundation and South Indian Organic Producers and Retailers Association to celebrate the first day of the Marina Beach protests.

“Even if I am offered Rs 5 lakhs, I will not sell my bull,” declared M Durai, a farmer and proud owner of an Umbalachery bull that he claimed was undefeated at Jallikattu events. “Nobody dares step in front of him,” he laughed, standing a few steps away from the animal, who solemnly chewed its feed.

Raja Marthandan, one of the organisers of the event, said, “The history and significance of our native livestock have faded from the minds of the people.” He added that this festival was an attempt at re-establishing the connection between the urban population and sustainable agriculture and livestock.

Himakiran, an advisor for the event, said, “One year after the movement, we decided that people should come and see what we were supporting. People think we were supporting the sport just for Tamil pride, but it is not like that. Everything is linked to our livelihoods and landscape.”

Himakaran, who is joint secretary of the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, said the Jallikattu movement sparked interest in native cattle breeds and that many engineers and information technology workers are now rearing bulls as a hobby. “We often joke that after the protests, there has been little need to spread awareness about native breeds of cattle,” he said.

He added that many more people are also involved in socio-environmental initiatives since the protests a year ago. “It (the protests) moved the collective conscience of society towards thinking about where we are headed in our lifestyle,” he said. “After the movement, society is no longer laughing at city people who want to get back to farming.”

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