Sabyasachi Patra

Jallikattu in 1951 : M. Krishnan’s account

Jallikattu in 1951 : M. Krishnan’s account

The Jallikattu, controversy and the concerted efforts by that lobby has resulted in painting a different picture as well as mostly one-sided picture of this event.

So we have reproduced here an article written in 1951 by India’s foremost naturalist M. Krishnan (1912-1996). His articles titled Country Notebook was published in The Statesman every fortnight from 1950 to 1996, the day he died. He was also awarded Padma Shri and he was part of the Indian Wildlife for Board and in the Steering Committee of Project Tiger.

This article gives us an idea about how Jallikattu (or Jellicut as it was then known) was conducted, its rules, breed of bulls, fatalities etc and can help in the current Jallikattu debate. The article by Shri M. Krishnan reproduced below will help people understand the actual manner in which Jallikattu was conducted in those days.


The Jellicut

Written by M. Krishna in 1951

It is a long time since I saw a Jellicut, but I am not likely to forget it.

The Jellicut is the southern bull ring. There are no horses and lancers here, no flashing matadors with blooded swords. No one waves red cloth at colour-blind bulls; such cloth as there is may be of any colour and is swathed around the bulls’ horns. The men are unarmed and unprotected, and their aim is not to kill the bulls, nor even to infuriate them.

All the same this rustic sport does not lack spectacle, or excitement, or risk.

Each bull that enters the ring- a circular stockade-has a piece of cloth, often brightly coloured, wound across and around its horns in a loose bandage, and the game consists in the men snatching the cloth clear of the horn as the bulls are driven down a fenced lane. That is, basically, the Jellicut, and explained this way it seems a tame pastime. Let me give a fuller account.

Around Madura*, and elsewhere in the south, an active, medium-sized breed of cattle, compact and powerful, is to be found in varying degrees of purity. The Jellicut bulls come from this stock, and are specially reared for the ring. The best type of fighting bull is a beautifully balanced beast, not running to exaggerated dewlap or hump, light and quick-muscled. It is so evenly made, without frills and fancy touches, that its power is not apparent at first sight, except perhaps in a certain arrogance of carriage and gait. A well-trained bull will suffer no stranger to approach close, and is wickedly fast on its feet and with its horns. White, laced with front-grey or rusty fawn on the head, fore quarters and legs, is a much fancied colour and is said to indicate fighting blood.

Not all the bulls that enter the Jellicut ring, are pure-bred or have the fighting temperament; even steers get in, at times. some specially dangerous bulls are widely known and respected, and are taken around the countryside for the sport. These are known by the names of their villages, or by the number of years for which they have held their own, unconquered, in Jellicuts. A Jellicut is a major event in rural areas. Men and beasts come to it from all around, sometimes from considerable distances.

The crowd gathers right from the morning for the afternoon’s sport. The bandaged heads of the bulls five them a deceptively complacent and domestic look, as their owners lead them in. A number of bulls are driven into the circular stockade-at the farther end is a long, narrow, fenced lane, leading out to open fields.

The spectators crowd around the palings thickly, and the men who enter the arena take up strategic posts in the lane, the frequent gaps in the bamboo fencing allowing them a ready, squeezed, acrobatic exit, should the need arise.

The fun begins with the first batch of bulls-any number up to a dozen-entering the stockade. A terrific din is set up, with the aid of drums and tin cans and loud voices. The bulls careen round the ring, the dust rises in a red ground-mist under their hooves and they are off, with waving tails and low heads, down the land. They are not allowed to enter the lane all together, but one by one, so that the waiting men have a chance.

The men hug the fence, and as a bull goes lumbering past one of them steps in and deftly snatches the cloth from off its horns. A cool head, smooth-moving limbs and perfect timing, rather than bravery or brawn are what make for success in this game, as in all sports of skill. But it is not always that the bull goes tearing past, allowing its crown to be lightly snatched – close holds, and courage too are often needed.

The Jellicut begins modestly, and the first few batches to enter the stockade hold no really dangerous bulls: some of them are just overgrown, mid-eyed calves still. The bulls with the worst reputations come later; they are reserved for the time when body and spirit have been sufficiently warmed.

At the last Jellicut I saw, staged in a village a dozen miles or so off Madura (I have forgotten its name), there was a notorious bull, a beast that had not been routed in five years, and with the name of a killer. This bull entered the stockade late in the afternoon, when we were tired of watching the sport and were about to turn home. A wave of excitement spread down the close mass of watchers, and five bulls entered the lane in quick succession, giving the men near the lane mouth no opportunity to single out any of them.

I asked my neighbour (never are neighbours nearer) to point out the killer to me, and he waved an obliging hand at the incoming bulls. There was the bull, right in front, a big fawn-and-white animal with rolling eyes and a large, massive head held threateningly low. As it trotted past, a man leaned out from the fence, sidestepped the sweep of the horns, and plucked the cloth casually off its horns. Joining in the spontaneous applause, I felt my neighbour poking me in the ribs. ‘Not that one,’ he said. ‘Do you see the grey bull behind all the rest? That’s the one.’ The grey bull was well behind the others, sauntering down the lane and keeping to the middle, the down-held head swaying from side to side to the rhythm of movement. I must say I felt disappointed at the killer’s looks and leisurely manner-there were many bigger and more defiant bulls in the Jellicut that day.

A spending young man, who had distinguished himself earlier stepped lightly down the lane as the grey bull passed him, and reached out for the cloth. The bull turned in a flash, the young man leaped back from the quick, sideway toss of the horns, and the bull continued its sauntering way down the lane. Only when the man collapsed on the fence, and was helped out of the lane, did we realize that the bull had scored. I had come up to this Jellicut with a doctor from Madura, and we hurried round the stockade to the casualty. The horn had pierced and torn the abdominal wall, and the man was in obvious pain, but I was told that it was not so grave an injury as it looked. We tried, long and ineffectually, to persuade the young man to go with us in the car to Madura, where he could have proper attention: he would have none of our help, and was sure that the aids and medicines available in the village would do.

A week later, meeting a man from a nearby village, we learned that the bull had claimed another victim.


In the above article, clearly Shri M. Krishnan has mentioned that the rule was to remove the cloth from the horns of the bull. The aim in those days was not to infuriate the bulls. The Jallikattu events conducted these days have different rules as people jump and hold on to the hump of the bull and only if they can cling to the bull till it moves about 15 feet distance the person is declared winner. People twist the tail, poke and prod it and rub chilli on its eyes etc. So clearly this gory animal abuse part that has crept into Jallikattu was never part of Tamil Nadu’s culture.

Though the Jallikattu lobby say that they only one person tries to hold on to the hump of the bull, in actual practice several people jump onto the bull.

In the past too people were gored to death. However, there was no account of people harassing bulls as is done these days.

Krishnan writes that “Around Madura, and elsewhere in the south, an active, medium-sized breed of cattle, compact and powerful, is to be found in varying degrees of purity. The Jellicut bulls come from this stock, and are specially reared for the ring.”

These bulls had varying degrees of purity, unlike the claims made by the vocal promoters of Jallikattu. The bulls were of medium sized and compact. They are not the biggest or largest bulls and their activeness had nothing to do with the milch bearing capacity of the cows of that breed. It has no relation whatsoever with native cattle breed vs foreign breeds that is being talked about these days.

*Madura: Madurai used to be called as Madura in those days.

I hope the above article will help the proponents as well as opponents of Jallikattu understand the actual Jallikattu culture. For further views read Jallikattu: Role of the State, Culture & Conservation

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