Skip to content


I have refrained from commenting on jallikattu for a long time, mainly because I don't have any real experience or concrete insight on the subject (yes, that does prevent me from making opinions known). However, after several debates, reading up, arguments and a lot of thinking, I can definitely say that a middle way needs to be found. A ban is not an answer and animal rights must be upheld to the best of our capacity (which can be considerable if we make an effort).

I think it is quite harmful to import PETA arguments against bullfighting and slap them onto Jallikattu for a handy halo of standards for animals. While I still am not expert enough to provide a "solution" that I can robustly defend without doubt, here is my thinking on several aspects of the issue.

What is jallikattu?

A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu.
A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu performed in Alanganallur, Madurai. Photo: Iamkarna

Jallikattu is a part of the celebrations of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, where youth of a village engage in a bull taming match, where a bull trained to buck them off is sent into the arena and the objective is to hang on to the bull by the rump, while the bull tries to buck them off. There are no weapons or rope involved and only bare hands may be used to hold on to the bull. Injuries to contestants are more likely (and prevalent in reality) than to bulls. If the bull succeeds in bucking them off, it wins, or the youth to hang on to the end wins.Like many other rites of passage seen in tribal societies worldwide, it is a test of the man's strength and skill in going barehanded against a bull. It is also a process of selecting the best bull for breeding. The event has been criticized due objections about cruelty to the bulls.

What is bullfighting?

A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005
A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005. Photo: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

For the purposes of this discussion, bullfighting would be what is practiced in Spain. Another cultural tradition. However, in this, the bull is repeatedly "hooked" at the hump with lances and finally when weakened with loss of blood and pain and defeated, it is killed with a sword. The bullfight invariably ends with the death of the bull. In rare instances, a bull that fights exceptionally well may be spared the final strike (but not the injuries). There is no competition involved. It is a traditional "art form" slaughter. The bull's struggle to evade a certain death is entertainment. There is no option for the bull to escape the injuries or death, usually.

How is jallikattu different from bullfighting?

In case the difference is still not evident, jallikattu pits the strength of a 60 kilo man against a 400+ kilo bull and the bull has far more power and horns. It is by no means a fight that endangers the animals - though of course accidents are possible in everything involving reflexes. The worst a bull will usually come to is exhaustion and injuries. I don't think even PETA will dispute this. In contrast, in bullfighting, the animal is pitted against people with weapons, some of them mounted on horses. When bulls disemboweled more horses than bulls getting killed, they started protecting the horses. There is no question of allowing a bull to win, merely making a spectacle of its death. Whatever our stands on what constitutes animal rights, the factual dissimilarities are glaring enough that arguments for or against cannot be copy-pasted between the two as currently appears to be happening.


Beyond this, I am looking specifically at jallikattu rather than bringing bullfighting into it. What considerations are there? What lives and livelihoods are involved?

The jallikattu bull

The bulls used in jallikattu are primarily from the kangayam breed of cattle. They are aggressive by nature and prone to attack. They are further trained for the sport, it is true, but these bulls are not preferred for work with far more docile breeds being easily available. They are, however good for breeding because of generations of stock selected for strength and reflexes. It is very common in rural societies for the males of herd animals to be castrated (horses, bulls, bullocks... even goats if there are more than one male!). The reason for this is that herd behavior dictates that males fight among themselves for dominance. This is natural behavior. Leaving the best of each generation with the temple as "public property" of sorts for all breeding needs of the village solves issues related to access or individuals maintaining their own breeding males (who will fight and do damage if they encounter each other). The jallikattu serves to identify the strongest stock for this purpose.

The ecology and economy of jallikattu

P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu
P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan, PARI Network

Where there is a feat of strength, you have a crowd of men to watch. It is easy for testosterone to dominate the narrative where the only thing visible about jallikattu is the fight or perhaps, due to hot debates on the subject, the question of breeding stock. But there is more to that. There are lives, livelihoods and the survival of an entire indigenous species tied in closely with the sport. Small farmers like P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Their cattle will lose value. Jallikattu is an important area where indigenous cattle of India continue to be supported and preferred.

In a country where successive government policies have endangered indigenous cattle breeds, the sport not only provides robust and preferred survival to a few, it generates public awareness and interest in their well being and qualities. Two decades ago, P. Sainath's tragicomic epic "Everybody Loves a Good Drought" already described vanishing indigenous breeds as an established problem. The first section of the book "Still crazy after all these years - A brief introduction to the Indian absurd" sets the tone for a book that is relentless in portrayal of the gloriously hilarious and tragic mismatch between government policies and people's realities. The first story "Very few specimens - but a lot of bull" described the haphazard processes of introduction of "superior breeds of cattle" in Odisha that wiped out the famed Khairar bull in the Komna region.

This is a situation that has repeated all over the country in the name of increased milk production. In 2015, he reported the efforts to reverse such damage in Kerala with the dawning awareness that many Indian indigenous breeds are at threat of extinction. But many other pressures are in play. The holy cow is a big deal in India. There is increasing resistance to cow slaughter rendering non-milk-producing cattle a liability. This further reduces the demand for indigenous species, as their milk production is lower than the imported and hybrid breeds. Ironically, the indigenous cattle actually give much better returns in comparison witht he expense and effort that goes into maintaining them, vis-a-vis the more exotic breeds.

So far, jallikattu has protected the native breeds that are engaged in the activities from going the same way as the rest of the indigenous breeds. The jallikattu ban threatens to change that. But it isn't that simple either. The bulls bred for jallikattu are naturally aggressive, and most cow shelters don't want them - they wren't exactly bred to meekly accept marginal care and be no trouble! They can be aggressive and hostile and a lot of trouble to care for. With the restrictions on cattle slaughter, there won't be much help from those quarters either. There will be no real reason left for the survival of some prize breeds from India.

Of course, the question of survival of indigenous breeds of cattle is larger than jallikattu. I am merely noting that this will add another breed to the mix.

What constitutes animal abuse and where is the line?

Man and animals have coexisted for a long time. Man has harnessed and often exploted animals for daily needs. From eating chicken that are grown more like a vegetable than a bird to using police dogs for risky work like bomb detection or protection. Animals are leading less than optimal lives and facing danger, injury or death to enable our lives all the time. Horses have often been injured beyond recovery at the very young ages they participate in horse races. Bullock carts, ploughs, saddles have caused sores on livestock since time immemorial. Reluctant animals have been flogged to work, patient horses have stood amid exploding firecrackers in marriage processions. Not to mention the national assault on the hearing of dogs every Diwali. Sheepdogs work alongside their masters come snow or sunshine. Cows, buffaloes, goats get their teats pulled with varying degrees of gentleness and efficiency twice a day. The garbage of our lives overflows to kill countless animals, while our "progress" destroys their ecosystems. I am not trying to justify anything here. I am trying to create a larger picture of an interconnected system, where many species of animals often live in harmony with man. Often not even found in nature at all. Witness the silkworm.

Witness the story of "Shaktiman", the police horse who turned out to be a mare who broke her leg while at work on an aggressive protest. I knew that horse was dead, only a matter of time the minute I saw the hind leg broken. It is unlikely that the veternarians caring for Shaktiman didn't know it. A horse bears most of the weight of its body on its hind legs. The horse's hoof also has a spongy pad inside (not getting into medical technicalities) that help pumps blood back up to the heart when it walks, so it is also important for blood circulation in the body. A horse does not burp. Walking helps speed digestion, so trapped gasses escape as farts (yep, stinky). A horse with three legs can perhaps hobble briefly if the injured leg is a foreleg, because the hindlegs easily take up most of the weight. A horse with a missing hindleg cannot walk. And a horse that doesn't walk is a matter of waiting for the compromised digestion and circulation to fail, because there is no way the forelegs can compensate for the missing power of a hindleg. There will be terrible back pain from that enormous weight now being supported only on one side of the spine. The kindest "treatment" for her was a mercy killing. Yet she was subjected to a long drawn and painful death going through a political circus of journalists and prosthetics and what not till the inevitable happened. In the line of duty. Not just the injury, but the manner of death.

The need to bring in this kind of perspective is because a lot of people doing these debates have actually never come close to livestock. They have no idea of the realities of their needs, the threats they face or even their power. While the idea of an adult man hanging on to a bull feels remarkably threatening, the only power of a body most people know is human. How powerful is a bull?

Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India
Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India. Photo: எஸ்ஸார்

That is two people trying to wrestle down a bull at once. Very alarming. Two aggressive men? We are practically conditioned to think of this as unfair. But wait a minute. The bull has all four feet in the air and the two men, in fact, appear to be pulled up. What would the weight of the people have to be if two of them hung on you and you had to jump off the ground? That is what the weight of people is like to a bull. And you don't have to believe me. Please do a google image search for jallikattu to see if you spot pics that even remotely look like an overpowered bull. There are several of boys about to be gored, though.

Does wrestling with a 60 kilo unarmed man cause a 400 kilo bull any significant harm? I don't know personally. From my experience with horses, I can say even a 200 kilo filly cannot be overpowered without at least a couple of people, rope and serious technique. That is why the Spanish bullfights use weapons and that is why without weapons, the goal in jallikattu cannot exceed "hanging on". And trust me, hanging on is going to do little more than irritate a bull that can pull a few hundred kilos easy. That is my thinking.

But there are other serious issues. For example, injuries to tails, stories of bulls being fed liquor or sedatives to make them more aggressive. Man is a pretty cruel animal and a man in a crowd eager for a spectacle... Here is a good documentary about the cruelty to bulls to get them agitated. Please note, that this is a collection of recorded cruelty as opposed to a documentary on the standard practice. Many of these practices need to go. (The link to this film was kindly provided by Sachin Bangera, who works with PETA India. Thank you, Sachin.)

Frankly, I don't think the liquor is going to harm a bull any more than it would harm a person. People who do attend the fights say that it is glucose water for a burst of engergy and not alcohol at all. Rubbing irritants, injuring them and more will harm. Consulting with veterinarians on safety is important. Establishing an arena and disallowing unofficial street chasing is important. I think a lot of good could come out of creating a set of rules that must be followed, failing which the animal or youth could be banned from the proceedings. We already have laws against cruelty to animals for that. We do not need a ban on jallikattu to prevent cruelty. This would be more useful than putting everyone out of work. Competition and peer pressure would ensure better practices or loss of face and overall improve safety standards, like in any other dangerous sport. Substances that cannot be fed, blood tests in the event of doubt (or as a matter of course), protective clothing for participants, disqualification on holding tail, etc. Whatever. Seniors of the field must be consulted.

Which brings us to the bigger risk.

Convention on Biological Diversity

India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global miltilateral treaty that obliges us to "develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity". While I have no legal understanding and no doubt it could be debated up and down the street, it does seem to my limited understanding that a ban on jallikattu that jeopardizes the future of the indigenous species used in it, violates the spirit of the agreement. And how serious is the risk? Very. From over a hundred indigenous cattle breeds in India, we have less than 40 left and those too are under threatas resistance to cattle slaughter increases and in turn increases the liability that cattle threaten to be. This makes people reluctant to own cattle altogether as well as prefer higher yielding cattle for their investment. Any move that reduces the utility of male cattle will add to the threat of extinction faced by our indigenous breeds.

Injuries and deaths of youths who participate in jallikattu.

These are actually more common than injuries to bulls. My views on this are twofold. The first is that best practices and preventative measures must be established where possible. The second is that like all sports with threat of life, the choice eventually must rest on the participant. If countless adventure sports are not banned, then jallikattu must not be either, on account of safety of participants.

This last, I am quite certain of. The rest needs debate. But more importantly, it needs debate that includes people who participate in the sport, instead of the same five talking heads representing "people like us" having an opinion on everything. People like us are conditioned to fear whatever looks darkskinned and sweaty and dirty and male and loud. However, our fears cannot dictate the practices of other people in another place in a shared country.

This article keeps getting updated as I add any important information brough to my notice. If you are interested in the subject, do keep checking back.


English: Montek S. Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman,...
English: Montek S. Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, India, speaks at the closing plenary of the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit 2008 in New Delhi, 16-18 November 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The provisional census data on houselisting has a shocker on sanitation in India - sanitation in India statistics reveal that less than 31% of Indians had access to proper toilets. Yep. You got that right. MOST INDIANS DO NOT HAVE ACCESS TO A TOILET. Half of india still defecate in the open.

A proposal to make Human Right to toilet an integral part of the 12th 5 year plan document was discarded by the Planning Commission of India. Ghosh, a professor at JNU said that a cabinet minister "gave a bizarre argument that Indian women like to defecate in the open". Of all the things that get blamed on women, from obesity in children to rapes, this is one I had never imagined I would encounter. That women do not want the luxury and privacy of a toilet and like to defecate in the open.

This, of course happens to be the Planning Commission of India which spent 35 lakh rupees for renovating 2 toilet blocks, 5.19 lakhs of which went into a smart card system to limit access to toilets to those who had cards issued. The electronic access system got disabled after protests by people on the floor. Gone 5 lakh. Poof. Planning Commission chairman Montek Ahluwalia spent Rs. 2 lakh per day of foreign travel at a time when our Prime Minister was making noises about austerity. One toilet for public use can be added for Rs.10,000/- but right to toilet seems to be limited to the stinking elite.

In other news, yesterday, the Delhi high court judge expressed displeasure at the negligible number of public toilets for women (269) in Delhi, as compared with men (3,712). Not to mention India being seriously behind on toilets with respect to its commitment to UN's millenium development goals and four South Asian Conferences on Sanitation, not to mention on a National, state, district and mohalla basis. Big promises, empty inside. Naam bade aur darshan chote, etc.

News from Madurai is that residents of Alwarpuram, Shenoy Nagar and Gandhi Nagar are defecating in the riverbed of Vaigai, because the toilets in their area are either locked or defunct due to stinking conditions. Complaints raised have not worked, concerns raised about both health and river have failed to worry anyone into action.

Raichur, in Karnataka ran into a strange problem when its 3 fancy e-toilets costing 5 lakh each and with a working life of 7-10 years were not being used by the public. You put a coin into a slot, the door unlocks. Exhaust fan starts, FM radio plays... you are supposed to do what you normally do in a toilet. When done, if you forget to flush, never mind, the toilet does it for you, and there is a timer that rings when your time is up at the end of two minutes or something. Such miraculous toilets probably freaked out the public at large. Or possibly our crowds are either not used to paying for peeing or take newspapers into loos to poop and 2 minutes won't do.

Whatever it is, the experiment follows Kerala installing some 450 of these toilets (that's a cool Rs. 22.5 crores, by the way) by the same manufacturer, who also got (the visibility to get) a grant by the Bill Gates Foundation. Considering that Raichur City Municipal Council and Kerala are both ruled by the Congress with its reputation for you know what, one starts wondering about all kinds of things about these 5 lakh rupee toilets that play FM music.

Though they do seem to be doing good work when in the mood. Intinta Paarishudhyam in Andhra Pradesh seems to have built 50,000 toilets in four months for the sane cost of Rs.10,000/- (of which they pay about a third) or so, using sanitation kits and local labour. They claim that this model can be easily replicated all over India and I found myself wondering why it took 65 years to figure out that people can build toilets when mobilized. So I am a bit skeptical. God knows how good it actually turns out to be. Reports that use words like "high voltage" for a sanitation programme in India leave me wary.

Dakshina Kannada district Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is constructing sanitary napkin incinerators in schools to encourage hygiene and prevent blocked toilets when girls gispose them in toilets. An astonishingly caring move.

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the rural sanitation programme has failed abysmally to meet its target in UP due to lack of funds. Only 7% f the target toilets were constructed. 11,44,430 toilets were to be constructed in 5,799 gram panchayats, but it could construct only 79,653 toilets. The rural development department was able to provide only Rs 74.6 crore under MGNREGS against the requirement of Rs 514.9 crore to panchayati raj department for executing of the scheme till March 2013. Further meetings led to another Rs.108 crore. The state couldn't use Rs 576.28 crore available for construction of individual toilets in rural households last year because of revised guidelines. Apart from MGNREGS share, the state received Rs 256.84 crore (against Rs 366.22 crore) from the centre and Rs 32.9 crore from the state. It also had about Rs 200 crore lying unutilized from the previous year. The department has to spend Rs 10,000 to get a single toilet constructed under NBA. To construct a toilet, Rs 4,500 comes as a MGNREGS share, Rs 3,200 as centre's share, Rs 1,400 as state's share and Rs 900 has to be contributed by the beneficiary.

Chennai Corporation failed to get any bids to construct 2,000 toilets, so it is waiting to fail once more before it rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.

In other news, some 85% of rural households in Bihar not having access to toilets is contributing to rapes, it seems. Police and social activists speak of a worrisome trend or rapes happening when women go to defecate in the open, particularly in the early morning and late evening. Mr. Pandey estimates that 400 out of Bihar's 87 rapes reported last year would be avoided if there was access to toilets. This is interesting and worth examining if there is any corelation. It reminds me of a horrendous gang rape of a child last month. She was caught by her rapists when she went to defecate in the open. The link has more such recent incidents.

A report by Ministry of Drinking water and sanitation for the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan on the sanitation situation in some districts of Maharashtra tells us that the number of households without access to toilets is 71% in Aurangabad division, 62% in Amravati division and 60% in Nashik division. Additionally, another 12% are not working.

CSR fitted 48 bio-toilets jointly developed by the Railway Research Design and Standard Organisation and Defence Research Development Establishment and is looking to fit 200 more on trains at a cost of Rs.80,000 each. This will prevent the night soil from dropping onto the tracks and create a hygienic, aesthetic and safety hazard (corrosive to rails) and reduce the excreta to water and gas.

Even the economic capital of Mumbai has a shocking 1,137 manual scavengers, even though they are (token) banned by the state.

I have no point to make. All the points are made. This is a sample. This is where we stand. thought it was worth a compilation to get a large view. The Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan has a long, long way to go.

Pasupati Pandian (50), founder of Devendra Kula Velalar Kootamaippu (Federation) was murdered yesterday in Dindigul district, by unidentified people in front of his home today.

The police suspect that the gang (how do they know?) monitored his movements (how do they know, if the people are not identified?) before attacking him. Special Teams have been formed to nab the gang.

Pasupati's wife "Jesintha" had been killed in a bomb attack about two years ago inTuticorin district.

The situation is tense in Dindigul, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli as some bus services have been hit. Police are saying services have been restored in "many areas" including Madurai, Theni and Tuticorin. I suppose it is too much to ask for reporting on status in Dindigul and Tirunelveli that were originally reported as tense.


So this tells me pretty much nothing about the dynamics around the murder that got entire districts tense.

Digging through archives, I found out:

A report from Madurai on 3rd March 2002 makes a reference to Pasupathi Pandian and John Pandian (who also contested elections this year) as having left the PMK and refers to them as senior leaders. this is 2002. In the same story, which is about Vandavasi MLA, Murugavel Rajan leaving PMK, Vandavasi MLA, Murugavel Rajan makes some allegations about the founder leader S. Ramadoss being victim to a powerful lobby running a parallel administration within the party and asks for security (possibly unrelated, but maybe related, since seeing the rest of the info).

Now, this Ramadoss had been arrested in 1944 when he protested the arrest of Pandian under the Goondas Act. At that time also there had been buses burnt. The same article goes on to mention a "nexus" between PMK and LTTE, which is categorically denied.

Interestingly, Pandian himself had been arrested along with eight others in 2003, following a police raid in which country made bombs and lethal weapons were allegedly seized from his home in Dindigul (presumably the same where he was killed yesterday). To quote:

Cases were filed under Sections 25 (1) (a) of the Arms and Ammunitions Act 1959, and Section 5 of the Explosives Substances Act 1908.

The arrested were produced before Judicial Magistrate court-II, which remanded them to judicial custody for 15 days.

Talking to mediapersons here, the town Deputy Superintendent of Police, P.K. Kaliamurthy, said that following information from the Tuticorin police that a life-convict, Damodharan, (36), was sheltered in the residence of his brother, Pasupathi Pandiyan here, a special team held an hour-long search operation.

The police could not find Damodaran but arrested the nine persons for murder, destruction of public property and robbery.

The arrested, besides Pasupathi Pandiyan (38), are Velmurugan (22) of Vilathikulam, Thangaraj (23) Marimuthu (19) and Kalidas (22), all belonging to Kovilpatti; Raja (30) of Madakulam in Madurai district, Sakthivel (24) of Udumalpet, Sundar (22) of Athoor in Tuticorin district and Paneerselvam (27) of Yeppothumvendran in Tuticorin district.

As they surrounded Pasupathi Pandiyan's house at Nandhavanapatti, on the outskirts of the town, at around 1.45 a.m., the police found that the accused were engaged in making country-made bombs. When they attempted to escape, the police arrested them, said Mr. Kaliamurthy.

A sword, a sickle and seven knives, nine country-made bombs, one pipe bomb, five boxes of high carbon steel balls and phosphorous and sulphur used for making bombs, were seized.

There were three cases including murder against Pasupathi Pandian, murder cases against Thangaraj and Kalidas and cases of murder and destruction of public property, including bus-burning, against Velmurugan.

Pasupathi's wife "Jessintha" has been killed in a bomb attack supposedly intended for Pasupathi soon after founding the Marutham Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (Mallar Nadu is its political arm) in 2008.

They were supposedly driving to court in Tuticorin to attend trial in a murder case in which he was accused. He accompanied by friends in two Sumos when a truck blocked their way at Eppothumvendran bridge and 20 or so attackers got out and attacked them with crude bomb, some of which didn't explode. Pasupathi got into one of the Sumos and escaped. "Jessinta", abandoned and stranded, was stabbed and shot dead. Two others, Mr. Hussain and Mr. Muniyasamy lay on the ground injured, but were not killed. Four other friends of Pandian jumped into the river and escaped.

Two people arrested with sickles were involved in more than eight murders - one of which was "Jacinta" (BTW, I think this is likely the correct spelling).

The attackers abandoned the truck and escaped in waiting cars near the bridge itself.

"The situation is well under control and we have established pickets and patrols in the area, " Superintendent of PoliceMahesh Kumar Aggarwal, told The Hindu.

A report on the candidates list of Mallar Nadu, the political arm of Mallar Ilakkiya Kazhagam fighting for representation of the Devendra Kula Vellalars from 25th March 2011 mentions John Pandian and Pasupathi Pandian would be contesting elections and the party would not be contesting against them, but providing moral support.

And so on... a curious archive search about this leader about which hardly anything was mentioned reads like a Tarantino film. I don't know what to make of this, but it sure is far more than a random Dalit leader killed by random armed men.