MADURAI, INDIA // The bull stops. Confused. Unaware that behind him is a straight run for freedom and glory. In front stand a hundred wild-eyed men, staring him down. They have their own glory in mind.
And also the promise of new kitchen appliances.
The bull charges and the men scatter, but one manages to grab hold of its hump and clings on desperately, his feet dragging along the hay-lined ground of the track as the animal bucks madly.
It takes more than three leaps of the bull to send the young man crashing to the ground. That’s enough to count as a victory.
He jumps up victoriously and rushes off to the judges to claim his prize. Moments later, he appears, beaming, with a new food processor in his arms. Before he can even reach the stands, another bull comes careering out of the gate at one end of the long track, barging its way through the crowd of young men.
This is the Jallikattu festival in the Madurai region of the southern state of Tamil Nadu – the ancient and often deadly tradition of bull-running that occurs during the Pongal harvest festival every January.
At least two people were killed and dozens injured this week in different races in the state.
Jallikattu is a sort of inversion of the Pamplona bull run in Spain. Here, it is the men that chase the bull – each hoping to grab hold of a hump for long enough to earn prestige for their village.
The men jostle violently for position around the gate, trying to balance their desire to get a grip on the bull without being directly in line with the horns when it charges. Many are battered senseless in the process.
At one of the most popular events in the village of Palamedu this week, it took less than half an hour before someone was badly injured, his unconscious body quickly scooped up by fellow competitors and taken off into the huge crowds that line the barricades.
Dozens are severely wounded every year. Many do not survive. In 2011, a 22-year-old spectator was gored to death at Palamedu after getting too close to the action.
The young participants are undeterred.
Masculinity is being tested here, and there are potential brides in the audience.
“I do this for honour,” said one competitor, a 20-year-old named Kumoransan Kovanam, head shaved, who was still waiting for a chance to get close enough for a ride.
Like most of his fellow bull-tamers, he is deadly earnest about the competition. There is no cheap thrill seeking here. “For me, honour is more important than life,” he said, before heading back into the scrum.
The bull owners are also competing. If their animal makes it through the crowd, they get one of the prizes, which range from cooking pots to bicycles, depending on the size of the bull.
Owners are not above a few scurrilous tactics –such as greasing the bull’s hump or sharpening its horns. “For our bull to win brings great prestige to our village,” said an owner from nearby Chekannur as he led his bull, decorated with yellow and crimson dye and marigolds around its neck, down the narrow pathway leading up to the starting trap.
Behind him, at least a hundred more cattle waited patiently and unsuspectingly for their turn.
But that search for honour and prestige is under threat from urban India.
Concerns about health and safety, and the ethical treatment of animals – ideas which seem entirely foreign in the dusty streets of Palamedu village – have started to encroach on tradition.
Under pressure from animal- rights’ campaigners, the Supreme Court banned the sport in 2008, but backtracked after protests in Tamil Nadu. Instead, regulations were tightened.
Owners are no longer allowed to get their bull drunk, rub chilli powder in its eyes or yank its tail at the gate.
Hundreds of police were deployed to ensure only registered cattle and participants made it into the arena while vetinarians, conducting health checks and drug tests, patrolled the line of bulls.
Today’s safety-conscious Jallikattu, with its high barricades protecting the audience, is a far cry from the days, not long ago, when the bull would simply charge through the whole crowd of spectators and anyone could leap on – or be trampled to death.
This is still not enough for campaigners, who say cruelty is an inherent part of the sport.
“The cow is kicked, punched and tormented – it is in a frenzy because it is terrified,” said Poorva Joshipura, a local representative of the campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), based in Mumbai.
She dismisses the idea that the tradition is sacred.
“It is our tradition in India – as well as our constitutional duty – to have compassion for animals,” she said.
For the locals in Madurai, such attitudes reflect a lack of respect for rural ways.
They argue, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the event is part of their worship of the animal.
“To us, the bull is sacred,” said Kiruba Daniel, a doctorate student in nanotechnology who had come home to watch the festivities.
“The Jallikattu bull is often given its own room and the best food during its training. They live better than the people.”
Peta argues the animals’ famed docility masks the psychological trauma taking place beneath the surface, and is back in the Supreme Court this month to press for a full ban on the grounds the sport contravenes the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
For those on the track, a Peta victory will be deeply felt.
“These urban people understand nothing,” said Mr Kumoransan.
“If we lose Jallikattu, we lose our honour.”
& Eric Randolph on