The state that loves bullfighting but isn't Spain

A bull about to attack a young contestant at a Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu (file photo) Image copyright J Suresh

Villagers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu hope to celebrate the New Year harvest festival later this month with traditional "bull-taming" contests once more. "Jallikattu" is a sport that has been practised in southern India for thousands of years, but was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014 following objections from animal rights activists. For the first time in centuries no events were held last year.

Now, political parties and supporters of Jallikattu hope the government in Delhi will promulgate a special act to bring back the contests in time for the 2016 season in mid-January. Photos by J Suresh. Words by Anbarasan Ethirajan.

Image copyright J Suresh

This was a typical scene until 2014. Here a bull has been let loose at a "Manju Virattu" contest (a version of Jallikattu). In recent years, regulations were imposed to improve safety for bulls and spectators, as well as contestants.

In Manju Virattu, the bull roams freely in the crowd, while contestants try to pluck money or other prizes from its horns.

Last year, villages across the state celebrated Pongal, a New Year festival that coincides with the rice harvest, without the running of the bulls.

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The Tamil sign on the top left says: World famous bullfighting arena at Alanganallur. The town's arena has been silent since the ban.

Image copyright J Suresh

Bulls which would normally have been kept busy have been idle since 2014.

Protests have been held across the state, with political parties and cultural organisations up in arms against the ban. They say Jallikattu is a part of their cultural tradition.

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Here in Palamedu near Madurai last month a special prayer was said in support of bringing back bullfighting.

To welcome the new harvest festival, people soon will be wearing new clothes, houses will be painted, roads will be decorated with garlands and special prayers will be offered to Mother Nature and other deities.

The bullfighting villages hope to be back in business too.

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All eyes on the bull - for contestants the taming of the bull is a matter of heroism, pride and great danger. Seen here before the ban, young men are wearing numbered uniforms - part of the new regulations in recent years.

During the event, hundreds of men will run along with the bull, hold on to its hump and pluck away bundles of money or gold tied to its specially sharpened horns. Unlike bullfighting in Spain, in Jallikattu the bull is not killed and the bullfighters are not supposed to use any weapons.

The idea is to dominate and tame the animals. Jallikattu is more than 2,000 years old and considered to be one of the oldest sports still practised in the modern era. Though most of the bullfighting happens in January, several villages organise events during various festivals from January to June.

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Here, bulls are readied for contest before the ban - animal rights activists argued that keeping the bulls in such an enclosed space was bad for their health.

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They also pointed to tactics like tail-pulling as being cruel. The Supreme Court said that the use of bulls in the sport "severely harmed" the animals and was an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

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Over the years, scores of people have been gored or trampled to death in the contests. Hundreds, including spectators, have been mauled or injured. In arenas like this one, coir matting from coconut trees cushioned the impact of a fall - but it provides no defence against a raging bull.

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This young man's future is hanging by a few strands of cotton.

In Jallikattu, the bull is released from the pen and the bullfighters are supposed to hold on to the hump for about 15-20 metres or three jumps of the bull to win the prize.

Fighters have got to be fit - some may take a drink beforehand to strengthen their nerves, but being drunk means you won't be allowed to take part these days. It's also a very bad idea - when angry bulls with sharp horns are around, reflexes need to be razor sharp too.

It's prestigious to be the owner of a champion bull and takes a lot of money - the animals are kept on a special diet and very few can approach them.

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Those who tame a bull - as the man in the picture above has done - were seen as heroes in their villages.

"Bull fighting has been part and parcel of our cultural tradition for centuries. Despite agreeing to the rules imposed by the court earlier, the event has been banned. We are terribly upset," says P Rajasekaran, president of Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Association, from the city of Madurai.

He denies accusations that the bulls were tortured and ill-treated. "We implemented strict rules regarding welfare of the bulls and bull fighters after the court intervened in 2008. We have no idea why the Supreme Court decided to impose the ban."

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Contestants and the ferocious noise of the crowd ensured the bulls were enraged by the time they entered the arena.

Animal rights activists say the bulls were also sometimes force-fed homemade liquor, and had chilli powder rubbed in their eyes, ears and mouth. In some places their tails were even bitten and testicles pinched to get them angry.

Following the outcry, the state government introduced a number of strict regulations aimed at ensuring the bulls were not ill-treated and keeping people safe. Animals now need to be registered, photographed and tested by a vet before they are allowed to take part. Details are cross-checked before they enter the arena.

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Bulls are also given regular exercise to keep them fit and strong for competition. If the ban is lifted they will be ready to run in time for the January festival, their owners say.

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The events used to attract often vast crowds. There was always a higher risk of injury to people at Manju Virattu contests, where bulls were set loose among the tightly packed spectators and contestants.

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At this pre-2015 Jallikattu contest some of the new safety measures are visible - the crowd is fenced off from the bull.

Image copyright J Suresh

Since the ban was imposed, protesters in Tamil Nadu have been demanding the central government allow them to continue the sport.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi has promised to look into their demands sympathetically, much to the annoyance of animal rights activists.

It's far from certain that bulls will be part of the festival this year - the government and legal opinion are at odds on the issue - but hopes in Tamil Nadu are high as their New Year approaches.

J Suresh is an award-winning photographer based in Delhi.