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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January 2005, 12:41 GMT
Dangers of taming the bull
By Sampath Kumar
BBC News, Madras

Bullfighting in Tamil Nadu
The sport is fast and dangerous (Copyright Oochappan)
Bullfighting is usually thought of as a Spanish entertainment, but in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu a local variation is growing in popularity.

It also appears to be becoming more dangerous.

Bullfighting, or jallikattu as it is known here, is centred on two villages near the town of Madurai. Its exponents say it is thousands of years old.

Hundreds of bulls are released one at a time into a large open space.

Each bull has prizes and valuables tied to its horns.

The contestants have to get close enough to the bulls to grab the prizes. And that often involves grappling with the bulls.

One key difference with Spanish bullfighting is that the bulls in Tamil Nadu are not intentionally killed.

They are only "tamed" so that participants can help themselves to the prizes.

The fights are held during the annual harvest festival, known as Pongal.

Frenzied and alarmed

This year five people were killed and more than 200 injured during the fights.

Bullfighter in Tamil Nadu
Bullfighting has upset animal rights campaigners (Copyright Oochappan)

The authorities say that although new safety measures are taken annually to prevent injuries, the number of injured continues to rise.

Taming the bulls is not easy. The bulls are often frenzied and alarmed, ferociously removing anyone brave - or stupid - enough to stand directly in their way.

Some bulls are given alcohol to make them even more aggressive.

Because the bullfighting does not take place in a stadium, inevitably those taking part and those watching are often injured as the bulls rush into the crowd.

Baton wielding police

Some youths, angry over their inability to win a prize, resort to throwing stones at the bulls.

Sometimes rival gangs eager to win prizes begin fist fights, which are speedily dealt with by baton wielding police.

Bullfighting in Tamil Nadu
Contestants and spectators are often in danger (Copyright Oochappan)

But most youths only vie with one another to tame the bulls, win a valuable prize and the more sought-after heroic status conferred on individuals who win.

The best technique is to cling on for dear life to the bull's horns as the beasts vigorously try to shake off the raiders.

Animal rights campaigners say it is a grisly sport, which results in many bulls being tortured and harassed.

Ancient literature

"We have been campaigning against this for a long time, but no-one listens," said the Tamil Nadu based animal rights campaigner, Palaniappan.

But organisers argue that bullfighting is an ancient and sacrosanct Indian tradition.

"This is a sport which has been here for more than 2000 years," says R Raghupathi who organises the annual event.

"We have descriptions of such events in our ancient literature... in those days women married only those who were able to tame the bulls and show their valour.

"It is an integral part of Tamil culture."

Mr Raghupathi denies the animals are mistreated or harmed in any way.

As word of Tamil Nadu's bullfighting spreads, more and more tourists are coming every year, with travel agents even organising package deals.

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