The Honourable Supreme Court of India has held that the ban on jallikattu, an annual event during the Pongal festivities in Tamil Nadu will not be lifted. While the court verdict has to be honoured, I feel sad that one of my favourite childhood events is not taking place anymore because of the ban that was imposed on grounds of animal cruelty.
I am from Madurai in Tamil Nadu and Pongal is one of my favourite festivals. I have fond memories of it - the slow cycle race and other competitions, group Pongal cooking, sugarcane decorations... and of course, jallikattu which took place 20km from Madurai in Alanganallur. My aunt used to live there and every year, during the last day of the four-day festival, we'd land up to watch the parade of bulls and soak in the uniquely rural festivities.
There are so many cultural subthemes and rituals associated with jallikattu that will be lost forever once the event is discontinued.
I remember how people would stand in queues to watch the proud owners bring their prized and heavily decorated bulls with so much fanfare. Every bull that arrived in Alanganallur came in a procession and as kids, we used to be amazed at the passion and pride of the entourage. More than the actual bullfighting, we used to enjoy the festive atmosphere in the small town and the rituals.
To give some background, Pongal is the Tamil harvest festival that is celebrated over four days.
Day 1: Bhogi day is when people discard their old worn-out belongings to mark new beginnings. The houses are painted and cleaned to welcome the harvest season.
Day 2: The main Pongal day, which is the start of the harvest season. At home, we cook Pongal and when the dish starts overflowing, we relate to it as a symbol of abundance and prosperity, happily cheering "Pongalo Pongal".
Day 3: Mattu Pongal (Pongal for Cattle) is when we thank cattle for bestowing so much to us, from food to fertiliser to labour. People garland their cattle, paint the horns and worship the animals.
Day 4: Kannum Pongal (kannum in Tamil means "to visit") is where the villagers celebrate the last day of the festival visiting friends and relatives with gifts of sugarcane and fruits.
Jallikattu is more than a sport or an event. It is part of Tamil cultural identity. When we debate an issue, it needs to be framed holistically. I remember a famous quote, "Ask not what is inside the head but what the head is inside of". Below are some reasons why I believe that this sport needs to be protected and preserved, while also ensuring that the animals are treated properly.
The preservation of cultural identity
Jallikattu is closely associated with Tamil culture and is considered to be one of the oldest living traditions in the modern era. Some Tamil historians claim that it dates back to 1500BC, citing as evidence a rock painting of bull-chasing at Karikkiyur in the Nilgiris. Popular Tamil Actor Kamal Haasan, during the Tamil version of Kaun Banega Crorepati a few years ago, gave a beautiful explanation saying that the historic name is Yeru Thazhuvudhal (Embracing the Bull) which later became Jallikattu. According to him, this sport was intended to build strength and stamina in youth and to prepare bulls to contend with adverse situations.
We can argue that all horse racing/riding and even milk extraction from cows are cruel. We need to understand and redefine cruelty.
In addition, many locals argue that these bulls belong to the some rare breeds in the region (including the most famous Kangeyam breed). The owners of these bulls invest lot of money to rear these bulls with utmost care over many years and prepare them for this event. This is an important culture, one that continues a long-lasting tradition of living with animals; this is something that needs to be preserved. There are so many cultural subthemes and rituals associated with jallikattu that will be lost forever once the event is discontinued.
Cruelty needs to be understood and redefined
I stopped eating meat two years ago and I am against cruelty to animals. However, while animal rights activists have some valid concerns regarding cruel treatment of animals during the event, the solution needs to explore how we can prevent these practices instead of shutting down the entire event.
Meat consumption is at an all-time high and animals lose their life to feed people. This is a daily ritual for many people all over the world - does anyone suggest banning the meat industry? In fact, meat consumption takes away the life of animals whereas jallikattu doesn't usually go that far.
Life is all about choices. We are okay with treating animals cruelly for food on a daily basis while we are against this event where while the animals do suffer during the event (which is something that can be prevented), they are extremely well taken care of for the remaining 364 days. In that context, we can argue that all horse racing/riding and even milk extraction from cows are cruel. We need to understand and redefine cruelty.
Jallikattu needs to be seen in the context of other festivals
If jallikattu has to be banned, what do we do about Diwali? During Diwali week, pollution levels reach hazardous levels in Delhi because of all the fireworks. People suffer as a result. So, do we try to mitigate the pollution caused during the festival or do we speak of banning Diwali? Similarly, we don't ban vehicular driving in highways despite the many accidents that take place. We examine ways to reduce accidents and design new policies to improve the outcomes. Why don't we apply the same logic and explore solutions to ensure that the animals are not subjected to any cruelty during the event? If we keep banning all our traditional festivals for various reasons, we might as well start importing customs and rituals from elsewhere!
If we keep banning all our traditional festivals for various reasons, we might as well start importing customs and rituals from elsewhere!
The tourism ecosystem needs to be preserved
Tamil Nadu is the only destination listed among the must-see places of 2016 in the rankings recently released by The New York Times. According to the Union Tourism Ministry report of 2014, Tamil Nadu drew 4.66 million foreign tourists in 2014 and ranked first among all states. The Pongal festival season is a big attraction for tourists and it is an opportunity to demonstrate not just the heritage structures but also the lifestyle and the richness of our festivals. When a cultural ecosystem is abandoned, it is going to move all the people associated with it to already cramped cities. These events, festivals and rituals are bringing people from cities back to the villages and by stopping the from taking place, we are doing a big disservice to society.
With increased urbanisation and globalisation, we are increasingly shifting to value systems and culture that are borrowed from outside. While it is important to be open to embrace good things from different value systems, it is equally important to preserve our own culture and tradition to ensure that the rich heritage that India offers to the world doesn't disappear. It is at the intersection of tradition and modernisation that true beauty lies, as we have seen from successful examples in Europe and Japan. India is a land of great history and culture. It is our responsibility to preserve this heritage even as we embrace new value systems so that our next generation is able to enjoy the best of both worlds.
I hope the honourable Supreme Court and the Government of India reconsider the possibility of hosting Jallikattu to protect a rich tradition while ensuring that the concerns of animal rights activists are addressed. Banning is not a scalable solution. Also, solutions cannot be framed in "either-or" terms. They need be framed with an inclusive "and". We need solutions that scale and that bring harmony to all stakeholders across all dimensions.
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