The month of Thai, an auspicious Tamil month, begins. During this month last year, Tamil Nadu saw massive popular protests demanding the legalisation of jallikattu, a sport that involves the taming of bulls. The scale and fervour of the protests caught many by surprise, leaving scholars fumbling for an explanation. One reason for the passion jallikattu invoked could be the long history of the sport, and its embeddedness in the cultural economy of the Tamils. The earliest evidence of the sport comes from Kalithogai, an anthology of 150 poems, which is part of the corpus of Tamil Sangam poetry. M.L. Thangappa, who won the Sahitya Akademi translation award in 2012 for Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, has translated the anthology, which I had the honour to edit and introduce.
Dating to the early centuries of the common era, Kalithogai poems are found in the section on ‘Mullai’ — poems set in pastoral land — and provide the earliest descriptions of an ancient sport called eru thazhuvuthal (literally, ‘embracing the bull’). Attributed to poet Nalluruthiran, the five poems, totalling some 350 lines, conjure up the thrill, tumult and breathless pace of jallikattu. In the 14th century, the phenomenally erudite Nachinarkiniyar, praised as ‘star commentator among scholars’, provided glossary and elucidation — testimony that jallikattu was a continuing tradition.
From these nearly 2000-year-old poems and their medieval commentary, it is striking how little the sport has changed: the mad rush of the bulls into the ring, the enthusiasm of the young men out to tame them, the spilt blood as man meets bull, the honour and lives at stake, the egging on by spectators… perhaps only foreign tourists are missing!