A Bull Fight In The Tamil Sangam

A little while ago, I was party to an exchange of opinions on Jallikattu with @realitycheckind – a fellow Twitter correspondent who is well read on social media for learned and incisive views on Indian Law and Policy. Jallikattu – a bull wrestling sport (not fight) – was recently banned by the Indian Supreme Court after a protracted campaign by animal rights activists. 

Where practiced, Jallikattu is considered culture; not sport. The storm of negative reportage about this cultural sport makes it easy to ignore its closeness to the hearts and culture of the local population. There are few reports (like this feature in the NYT) which penetrate the high-handedness of a culturally disconnected activism and attempt understanding. It is widely accepted that recorded reports of animal abuse are deviant manoeuvres which have recently crept into Jallikattu. As such, abuse could have been weeded out and a ban averted if activists had engaged instead of choosing a legal confrontation.

Realitycheckind sees the ban as predatory law that must be repealed. I agree with him on the peculiarly blinkered approach of both activism and the Law but, I nevertheless persist in my belief that a case exists for cultural evolution, for the continued existence of the sport sans abuse and, for responsible activism.

Re-reading AK Ramanujan’s ‘Poems of Love and War’ – a selection of his translations of Tamil Sangam poetry – I came upon a poem, from the Kallithokkai, on the Bull Fight which I have reproduced in full below. Jallikattu has traceable hoary antecedents and this poem belongs to the often quoted reference to a record of it in the Sangam literature. It is noteworthy that the poem describes the sport as a ‘bull fight’. However, verse after verse describes the wounded fighters as human with nary a mention of a wounded or killed bull. ‘Fight’ can thus be assumed to be an allusion to the battle of wits between a mighty bull and an unarmed man.  While the man risks his own life, the bull, at the end of the tussle, walks away defiant and unharmed. None of this is much different from how the sport is practiced to this day.

As to why the man indulges in this patently foolhardy exercise, Uruttiran, the author of the poem, suggests sexual selection at play. This dangerous display of machismo had an ulterior purpose as cultural ornamentation for a courting/mating ritual. “There, in the middle ground, where the brides wait, men gather again and again ready to master the bulls”. The men who were brave enough to enter the ring and tame the bull were highly prized suitors. “That bull is wilder than an elephant gone wild: do not loosen your hand’s grip on him, and the shoulders of our girl will bring you victory flags”.

Jallikattu still retains the machismo element and the winners, to this day, are able to enhance their value as suitors in the matrimonial game. But, the overt courtship rituals that it was associated with have disappeared. Women are still value seekers; it is what is valued as marriage-worthy that has changed and the game has kept pace with that change. It is this sort of evolution in the rules of the game, to stay au courant with the times, that will reinstate and refurbish an ancient culture.

A brief note on Tamil Sangam literature:

The period of the Tamil Sangam is dated between 200 BCE and 250 CE. The corpus of literature from this period is broadly classified into three broad groups: 1. Eight Anthologies of poetry – EttuThokkai 2. Ten long poems – PatthuPattu and 3. A book on grammar – TholkApiyam. Excluding the last, the other eighteen works contain within them a total of 2381 poems composed by 473 poets; 30 of who were women. The most prolific poet amongst them was Kapilar – 235 poems are ascribed to him. Of the women, AvvayyAr’s 59 poems command the highest pedestal.

An extraordinary feature of these poems is that all of them are collected under two clearly defined themes – Akam and Puram. Akam refers to the inner or personal life, deals overwhelmingly with love and sites its various moods in glorious descriptions of nature and landscape. Puram, on the other hand, refers to the outer or public life. Love doesn’t feature here; and when it does, it is not in the celebratory style of the Akam but takes on unrequited and perverse themes. All 2381 poems fall into one of these two categories. The poem that describes the Bull Fight is in the Kalithokkai – one of the eight anthologies. 

The Girl Friend Describes The Bull Fight

With the first rains

white clusters of the wild jasmine
backed by fresh thorn
are budding
on nodes once dry
in the cool rain lands.

The bud of the glory lily
looks like a ladle first,
the becomes a fire
when the red petals open
gathering the embers,
and its sways like a drunk.

The bilberry, flowering,
gives nothing but blue gems.

Weaving such blossom
in their wreaths,
cowherds vie with all they have,
enter the stalls
to let loose the bulls,
horns whittled sharp
as the Lord’s own pickaxes.

There, in the middle ground,
where the brides wait,
men gather
again and again
ready to master the bulls,
sounding like rumbling and thunder,
raising dust clouds, and smoke,
offer the right things
to the gods
in watering places,
under the banyan tree
and the ancient mango.

There, they leap into the field.

Look, the bull,
raised horns and skin tawny
as certain silkmoths,
he skewers to death
the cowherd who sprang
heedless of the look in the animal’s eyes,
carries the carcass high and shakes it
on his horns,

Like the warrior Bhima
making good his oath
sworn among enemies
cleaving the heart
of the man
who dared put a hand
to the tresses of his lovely wife.

Look at that black bull,
a moon-mark on his brow,
carry and shake the cowherd,
skewered and gutted
(the wreaths on his head
were flowers once on the caverned hills):

like the raging androgynous god
whose one half is His woman,
who dances at the end of time
when lives wear all their sorrows,
cleaves the heart of the Death-god
that rider of buffaloes
and feeds Death’s own guts
to His famished barbaric minions.

Look at that other bull
with spotted ears,
smooth reads
on his white body.
Teased by the fighters,
he throws that daredevil, that herdsman,
with the points of his horns,

like Asvatthama in grief and rage
not mindful of the darkness
on his shoulders
that eunuch who slew his father.

But now the herdsmen
play flutes,
good omens
for you and your man
wearing blue-gem bilberry flowers

[Saying this, the girlfriend went to the man and said: ]

That bull is wilder
than an elephant
gone wild:
do not loosen
your hand’s grip
on him,
and the shoulders of our girl
will bring you victory flags.

Only to that man
who takes on that murderous bull,
carries a staff on his shoulder
plays melancholy notes on his flute,
we will give our girl
with dark flowing hair.

Among men who take on a bull
no is equal to me, says he,
standing among the cows,
bragging of his power.

Surely, one day, not too far,
he will take us too:
for, looking at him
my left eye throbs,
which is a good omen.

There, the bulls are faint,
and the men have wounds all over.
The cowherd girls
with dark fragrant hair,
taking hints
from their herdsman-lovers,
move into the cool groves
of jasmine.

Uruttiran, Kalittokai 101

[Translated by AK Ramanujan in, ‘Poems of Love and War’ CUP, 1985]





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s