Tamil Nadu bullfighting festivals claim 13 lives

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The Independent Online

As if Tamil Nadu is not facing enough tragedy with the tsunami, as many as 13 people have been reported killed in this year's annual bullfighting festivals in the state.

As if Tamil Nadu is not facing enough tragedy with the tsunami, as many as 13 people have been reported killed in this year's annual bullfighting festivals in the state.

The Indian version of bullfighting is actually closer to the infamous bull-running of Pamplona and, as in Spain, almost every year there are reports of people gored to death. This year more than 350 people were reported injured in a single district of Tamil Nadu.

Tamil bullfighting, Jallikattu, is held to celebrate the Hindu festival of Pongal and the "fights" take place at Hindu temples. At the most famous, at Aranganallur, proceedings began at 11am last Saturday with the temple bull set loose among young, would-be matadors. They compete with each other to snatch a gold chain tied around its horns. They get to keep the chain as a prize, but it is really more about the glory.

After that comes the really wild part of the festival. Five hundred bulls are released into the crowd, as at Pamplona. But in Pamplona the crowd runs. In Tamil Nadu they compete with each other to try to bring the bulls under control.

There are prizes of wrist watches, stainless steel cooking utensils and cash for the winners. But some contenders get tossed into the air on the bulls' horns, then trampled underfoot. Three youths were reported gored to death at Aranganallur, and there were deaths at several other events.

Medical camps were set up in advance to provide first aid. Thousands of spectators travel to Tamil Nadu for the bullfights.

The origins of bullfighting in Tamil Nadu are not known, but it has been popular for several centuries. Only men take part in what is considered a test of valour, and legend has it that in earlier days women used the sport to choose husbands. Today there is often betting on the outcome.

Unlike in Spanish bullfighting, the bulls are not killed. In Hinduism, bulls are sacred to the god Shiva and it would be unacceptable for the competitors to kill or try to inflict wounds on them. But this has not prevented animal rights activists from objecting as there have been accidental deaths of bulls over the years. The bulls are also said to be given alcohol before the fight. It is highly probable that many of the competitors are in a similar state.

The event has entranced Indian film directors and several Tamil-language films have been made about the sport. Among the dead is reported to be the star of one of those films: Senthil, who is famed for his work in the film Virumandi. Four of his close friends are reported to have taken poison on hearing of his death. Two are said to be in a serious condition.

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