Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend what people will do for a pot. Yes, a pot.
Granted, in many contests (or reality TV shows) where people risk life and limb, the risk is often undertaken for pride rather than material gain. Yet here in the outskirts of Madurai, I guess I expected the material reward to be, well, just a bit more material.
In mid-January the district hosts Jallikattu, India’s version of the Running of the Bulls that’s a bit more like the Wrestling of the Bulls. It makes Pamplona look cute and cuddly and just not all that dangerous in comparison. I ran in Pamplona few years ago and (not that the tourist office folks probably would have let me if I’d wanted to) but I wouldn’t have even contemplated a run here where the line between courage and stupidity is very, very thin. It makes news when someone is killed in Spain’s annual event; here the pool is on how many handfuls of people will die. The cobblestone streets of Pamplona are filled with a more-or-less equal mix of locals and foreigners (with an exceptionally disproportionate amount of foolhardy Aussies as I recall) but I don’t think there was single person in the bull scrum who wasn’t Indian. I can’t say this more bluntly: it’s really dangerous.
Jallikattu translates as “tied up money” in Tamil (which I’m sure you knew because doesn’t everyone speak Tamil?) because originally the prizes (mostly coins) that you’d win for wrestling a bull were actually tied to said bull. Now there’s more of a judging panel that hands down awards from on high but the idea is the same today as it was a hundred years ago: when a bull is released into the crowd, try to hang on to its hump for as long as you can. (Think of it as rodeo without the rodeo – rather than starting on the animal, the dance starts with you on the ground with a ton of pissed off bull coming at you.)
Now you may be thinking: “Piece of cake.” If only it were that easy. There are more than 400 bulls that come from villages all over the district and each bull’s owner has one singular objective in the weeks leading up to Jallikattu: don’t be disgraced as the owner of a bull that one of your neighbors could hang on to. So the bulls are put through their paces, practicing 10 hours a day so they will be in fighting form by the time Pongal rolls around. To make things even more interesting, the bulls are not only decorated in streamers, flowers, bells, flowers and bright paint splotches but they are also slathered in hair grease to make them hard to hold on to (as if trying to throw your arms around a one-ton beast that’s bucking like the dickens and swinging foot-long horns in your direction isn’t enough). It seems to do the trick but, going on my own personal Indian experience, I’d guess that herbal ayurvedic oil would be a suitable alternative.
On top of all of this fun, consider that you as a young Tamil villager (it’s all male and mostly late teens and twenties) are stuck in what is a mosh pit of thousands that is always a second away from becoming a human stampede depending on which way the bull turns and what solid objects block the crowd’s path. (The news figured attendance at 100,000 but that’s hard to corroborate so suffice it to say that there were a lot of people.) And if you thought an agitated horned animal was something to worry about, you should see Tamil villagers when door prizes are at stake; the usual tranquil Indian character seems to utterly (no pun intended) break down (ok, yes, I meant to use the pun) in this bovine celebration.
While the bulls are the ones responsible for the deaths, a far greater number of injuries (albeit non-life threatening) results from flared tempers in the chute. You as someone who probably doesn’t look forward to wrestling bulls every year might figure that fisticuffs erupt because someone felt that someone else pushed him in front of an oncoming bull. Nope. Just the opposite: punches are thrown when someone jumps between you and the bull. But of course.
After all, if you snag the hump and hang on you win a pot. Seriously. In addition to small color TVs and cots (mattresses not included), the most oft-awarded prize appeared to be a two-gallon steel cooking pot. It’s kind of a mix of Roman gladiator sport and kitchen-give-away night with the local amateur hockey team as the judging panel which is seated above the fracas throws down a prize commensurate with the skill displayed. And the best part of the gathering is that the rampaging bulls aren’t necessarily confined to one area; occasionally a bull breaks out and roams through the fairgrounds, thereby letting unaware bystanders unwittingly participate, quickly jolting one from enjoying a nice fried pakora treat to running for one’s life. Never a dull moment in Incredible India.
Did I mention it was dangerous?