Inside the mind of a bull-tamer

In Jallikattu, bull selection is not an evaluation of the required characteristics in the animal. According to a researcher, it is a primal encounter between the selector and the calf. There is no correctness or ideal involved in it. There is always something invisible which makes the selection process a mystery. Unfortunately, bovine animals are extremely docile by nature and it takes immense prodding to excite them.


Renowned anthropologist Garry Marvin, during his years in Spain to write the book "Bullfight" (published by the University of Illinois), was stupefied by the cult status enjoyed by the country’s top-ranked matador Enrique Ponce, in 1992. The star matador received thousands of dollars for performances and was sought after by the media. A Dutch filmmaker was making a movie on him. The youth in the country were moved by his skill and stature alike and aspired to be like him.

The anthropologist in Garry Marvin tried to find why the blood-game, of hunting down bulls in an enclosed space, evoked such humongous interest.


After extensive interactions with celebrity matadors and aspiring ones, Marvin argues in his book that the Andalusian people are attracted to bullfighting as their culture gives a major priority to “what it means to be civilized”. For Gary Marvin, the matador represented human instinct and the bull, nature. So, the bullfight, for the populace and its ingrained psyche, was the subjugation of nature by man.

Thousands of miles away in Tamil Nadu, Jallikattu (bull-taming sport) has been continuously ‘played’ for over a thousand years. Historians say it is the only sport with such a continuous history. The Spanish blood-game differs from Jallikattu in the fact that the end is less gory. But the terrible acts of brutality inflicted on the show-animals to elicit an electric and ‘carnivalesque’ performance from the otherwise docile animal far exceeds the pangs of death.

The Supreme Court had banned Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu on May 7, 2014. On January 8, 2016, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) allowed the conduct of the sport on certain conditions, effectively allowing organisers and enthusiasts to circumvent the ban.

The apex court on January 14, 2016, stayed the MoEF order on a petition filed by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India. This caused widespread protests across Tamil Nadu. The protesters contended that the sport was crucial to ensuring the continuity of traditional humpback bull varieties like Kangayam and Pulikulam. The ingrained-culture argument was also heard aloud.

Photo: Prathap Ravishankar


Photo: Prathap Ravishankar

The whole bullfight ecosystem is built on a complex scheme which starts with the selection of calves fit for taming, training, and finally the game itself. Usually, a bull-tamer visits a "Patti" (a place where bulls are kept) to choose a ‘worthy’ calf. In a process which treads the brink of imagination and reality, the tamer looks at a calf which ‘looks back’. He then tries to ‘hold’ it wherein the calf wriggles out of grasp. This is repeated multiple times to ensure that the calf could be groomed into a fight-animal.

In the paper, "Hugging the Bull: Becoming-Animal in Jallikattu", by S Vignesh (Edinburgh University Press), the author says there is some ‘mystery’ in the selection of a fight-bull. He writes: “The Jallikattu bull selection is not an evaluation of required characteristics in the animal. It is always a primal encounter between the selector and the calf. There is no correctness or ideal involved in looking at a young Jallikattu bull while selecting it. While selecting the Jallikattu bull, there is always something invisible which makes the selection process a mystery.”

The animal is taken by the tamer and given special food and care. Usually, bulls live up to 25 years. Homestead bulls are castrated in three to four years but Jallikattu bulls are never castrated to retain their ‘fight vigour’.



Any animal training involves two major aspects — ‘breaking down the animal’ and ‘crushing its spirit’. Jnanpith-winning Malayalam author MT Vasudevan Nair, in his book of essays, "Kilivathililoode (Through the Lattice)", details how elephants are made to obey orders. There are torture tools to inflict maximum pain. Bull-hooks are used to tug on the limbs, pin-tipped clubs to poke nerve-junctions, and heavy clubs to hit the animal with. Small iron nails are inserted between the nails and allowed to fester. The animals writhes in pain and the handler or mahout needs to just ‘raise his stick’ to make the animal ‘obey’. Baby elephants are put in crush boxes wherein the animal can only stand. Pain is inflicted on the animal by handlers from all sides and finally, the exhausted animal gives in to constant abuse.


of bulls

Jallikattu bulls are also subjected to such treatment. Bulls are draught and pack animals. The SC judgment banning the sport noted that the bull had a “large abdomen and thorax and the entire body resembled a barrel, which limits (its) ability to run”. Also, the bulls are cloven-footed — which means it has two toes on each foot. Animals with two toes on each leg can only walk well and are not meant to run. The judgment also read that bulls had limitations on flexing joints and “the rigid heavily built body and limited flexion of joints do not favour running faster”.

The Jallikattu bulls are ‘awakened’ to external stimuli, like the waving of a "muleta" (a cloth attached to a rod). It is extensively bathed in water and made to use its brute force on heaps of sand. In psychological parlance, the animals are systematically sensitised to an ‘enemy’ or the ‘subjugator’. The ‘mythical’ ecosystem comes into play here and the trainer thinks the bull is fight-worthy and would rise to the taunts of the tamers in the ring.


A dash of


S Vignesh, drawing from French philosopher Deleuze, argues that the training produces unexpected outcomes “that cannot be reduced to linear, discrete, isolatable components”. He says it is not automatic reflexive action that drives this phenomenon but a “supernormal” instinct.

The docile bull

Unfortunately, bovine animals are extremely docile by nature and it takes immense prodding to excite them, even if it is a Jallikattu bull. On Jallikattu day, the frenzy is drummed up to psychic levels and the bulls are holed up in a cloister space, akin to an elephant crush box. PETA reports say multiple people, right outside the box, try to catch the horn of the animal. The tamer then twists and bites the animal’s tail to keep it running in pain. PETA had repeatedly pointed to the use of painful nostril knots, boring of its nose, and use of irritants in the eye to ensure that the animal is agitated and violent. The trainers also use alcohol to “enthuse” the animal.


Abuse and

Several biochemical calibration of animals have been done across the world and any performance or work above the criteria is deemed ‘abusive’ or ‘cruel’.

For example, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, says a bullock weighing 350 kg should pull a weight of less than 900 kg in a two-wheeled vehicle without any pneumatic tyres for less than five hours alone in temperatures not exceeding 37 degrees Celsius.



But blood-game enthusiasts shun all such calibration, citing culture and ethno-geographic sentiments. Researchers Maria iliopoulou and Rene Rosenbaum, in a paper, "Understanding Blood Sports", say the popularity of such events can be attributed to “a psychological and moral crisis, a breakdown of the traditional values and an increase in individualistic attitudes and behaviours”.

They also point out that the game, which essentially is a “baiting spectacle” is “associated with scape-goatism” and the popularity of these manifested “a site of humanity’s confusion about itself”.



As another Pongal season is here and the Jallikattu game arenas get ready, a ‘thought-swap’ could do us some good. For a moment, what if hundreds of bulls chased humans in a frenzy, with knots tightened around our necks, terrorised and tamed for a prize?