The day began with a cup of coffee. There was no way I was leaving the house at 5:45am without some sort of caffeine. The driver came late—at 6:10 or so—but this was most welcome, as it gave me time to have a second cup. As I stepped inside the van, several coworkers greeted me, and I could tell from their voices that they, like me, were both sleepy and excited. Sleepy because we were up at 6am on our day off. Excited because it was a holiday—Pongal—and we were going to celebrate in that most traditional of ways—watching young men wrestle angry bulls. Welcome to the Jallikattu.
We drove for more than an hour. I alternately dozed off (dreaming of a third cup of coffee) and asked my friends why, in God’s name, someone would choose to wrestle a bull with their bare hands. I was told that this tradition, in ancient times, was used by women to choose their husbands—if a man could hold on to the bull long enough, he might earn the privilege of his favored lady’s hand. In modern times, my friends explained, people could win prizes. And, they insisted, it was one heck of a good show.
We arrived at the open-air stadium to find a total mob scene. There were people everywhere—spectators, vendors, police. Apparently this was going to be the party of the year. We took seats overlooking the main stage, which consisted of a circular dirt enclosure with a narrow path leading out. Seventy or so young men stood in the enclosure, waiting by a doorway, behind which stood a line of colorfully painted bulls. One at a time, each bull was pushed through the doorway into the enclosure. As it emerged, the participants would try to grab it and hold on as long as they could. This, of course, is probably the single best way to make a bull, who is already testy at being painted and having to wait in a two-hour line, really want to kill you.
And this is not a theoretical danger—bulls have big, scary horns. These horns are sharp and hard and will do all sorts of damage if they are rammed into your chest (or stomach or head). Bulls also have thick, muscular legs that can kick you back to the Stone Age. Not surprisingly, every year, people get hurt. At the event I attended, fifty people were injured. In years past, people have been killed. Participation in the Jallikattu is not to be taken lightly.
I watched as the brave young men did their best, lunging, grabbing, and retreating in turn. Some participants, unable to get a favorable position, barely touched the bull as it ran through the stadium and out the pathway to the back. Others were able to hold on for a moment, only to lose their grip as the bull bucked wildly. A few all stars held on for what seemed like minutes, rousing the crowd to its feet. After tussling with a bull, each participant was given a prize, which, depending on the performance, could range from a handbag (thanks for trying!) to a flat screen tv (bravo!). I couldn’t help but think—if a bull punctured my lung and all I was given was a plastic lawn chair (actually given to several people), heads would roll.
Here are some of the best performances of the day: