Jallikattu and San Fermín bound by a common thread

While in Pamplona, I used to stand in front of the statue of Hemingway and try to understand the magic of the mutual romance between an American author and the town.

Jallikattu and San Fermín bound by a common thread

[File Photo]

Come Pongal, the streets of three Madurai district towns in Tamil Nadu – Palamedu, Alanganallur and Avaniapuram – are a riot of colours. It’s time for Jallikattu, the traditional bulltaming sport played across Tamil Nadu as a part of Pongal celebrations on Mattu Pongal day. Jallikattuhas been around for over 2,000 years. Today, with hundreds of bulls and hundreds of tamers taking part, it’s certainly a big event. Jallikattu requires fighters to pounce on a running bull, try to hold on to its hump and move along with the animal.

The bull will try to get away, shake off the fighter and, at times, stamp or gore the fallen participants. Thus, it’s not quite surprising that more than 50 people were injured and two people died in 2020, and there are tens of instances of human deaths, killing of several bulls, and thousands of human injuries and several instances of injury to the bulls during Jallikattu events in the last decade or so. Some believe that “Jallikattu is inherently cruel to animals”, and for some it is a “Roman gladiatortype sport”.

However, many prefer to look it as “a symbol of the ageold Tamil culture”. Perhaps most of the views are correct to some extent or more, and hence it’s never easy to take a call on such a socially-rooted cultural festival. In 2004, organisations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Welfare Board of India wanted to stop Jallikattu citing cruelty to animals and the threat to public safety involved.


It was a turbulent period involving this issue during May 2014-January 2017. Finally, the President’s assent to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2017, allowed conduct of Jallikattu in January 2017. Not only political parties, the who’s who of Tamil cinema and sport like Ajith, Vijay, Suriya, Dhanush, Prabhu Deva, singer Chinmayi, chess champion Vishwanathan Anand and cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin also openly supported Jallikattu during the 2017 pro-Jallikattu agitation.

Superstar Rajinikanth and actor Kamal Haasan came out in support of Jallikattu. Oscar-winning music director AR Rahman announced that he would observe a day-long fast to express solidarity with people protesting against the ban on Jallikattu. Overall, the movement enjoyed tremendous support, although the protestors wished to carry out a leaderless mass movement. Jallikattu is often compared with Spanish bull-fighting, although a true parallel can be drawn only with the San Fermín festival of the small Spanish town of Pamplona.

I enjoyed visiting Pamplona twice, three weeks in all, about 15 years ago. The Roman general Pompey used this area as a camp in the war against Sertorius during 75-74 BC, and that’s how Pamplona was established. It’s a typical European small town in the Navarra province of northern Spain, located in the Basque region. Usually tourists don’t flood into such a small town. However, Pamplona is different – it’s famous for its 8-day-long San Fermín festival, named after its greatest son, Saint Fermín.

Although the festival involves many other traditional events, its highlight is the encierro, or the running of the bulls. People also run with bulls along a 930-yard street course, from Pamplona’s Santo Domingo street to the Plaza de Toros, where the bullpen is located. Spain’s national TV has been brodcasting it live for more than three decades now. The 2011 Bollywood movie ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ portrayed the bull-running of Pamplona. However, as in Jallikattu, accidents, even occasional deaths, occur.

But Pamplona is so excited that statues of bull-running feature in some street corners of the town. This is probably the most internationally renowned fiesta in Spain, and Pamplona and its San Fermín festival are central to the plot of Ernest Hemingway’s best novel ‘The Sun Also Rises (1926). In 1925, Hemingway went to Pamplona from Paris, and this book is based on Hemingway’s personal experience in Pamplona. It was titled ‘Fiesta’ in its London edition. Pamplona was Hemingway’s first obsession, and the town never forgot its greatest-ever visitor, his statues are built in prominent places of the town.

Hemingway might have been fascinated by Pamplona and its San Fermín festival about a century ago; the concept of ethics, however, is evolving with time. Animal rights organizations, including PETA and Spanish group AnimaNaturalis are protesting against bull-running for some time now. In 2016, amidst the speculation of Barack Obama’s visit to Pamplona during San Fermín, there were protests by activists. PETA also held a demonstration outside the White House to urge President Obama not to attend the festival during his trip to Spain.

Spaniards are possibly becoming less enthusiastic about bulls. Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2010 following a campaign by animal rights groups, although Spain’s constitutional court overturned the ban in 2016. A 2010 poll showed 60 per cent of Spaniards did not like bullfighting, while 57 per cent also said that they opposed the ban because it was a rejection of Spanish tradition. However, Pamplona and Tamil Nadu come in the same bracket, Jallikattu and San Fermín are tied by the same thread – in their styles of festivity, cultural heritage, protests, and controversies.

It might be interesting to gauge public opinion through properly designed polls. However, public opinion may just be an indicator, not the gold-standard for judging a complex issue like Jallikattu which has multiple dimensions like alleged cruelty to animals, public safety, tradition, culture, public enthusiasm, and huge tourism potential. There have been 16 deaths and numerous injuries during San Fermín since 1910. However, San Fermín continues to be a major crowd-puller, and it generates a lot of money and livelihood for the locals.

More than 1.45 million people attended the fiestas in 2017. From hotel booking data, it is evident that more than 40 per cent of the visitors of Pamplona in July are foreigners, and, understandably, it has huge impact on the economy. It’s never easy to ignore that. Certainly, Jallikattu also has a huge potential to earn lot of money through tourism. There are calls from different corners in that direction as well. Of course, it could be much easier if your town had a passionate visitor like Hemingway, even a century ago.

While in Pamplona, I used to stand in front of the statue of Hemingway and try to understand the magic of the mutual romance between an American author and the town. Hemingway returned to Pamplona for the ninth and last time in 1959 and lamented the number of tourists who had followed in his footsteps. In ‘The Dangerous Summer, published posthumously in 1985, he mused: “Pamplona was rough, as always, overcrowded… I’ve written Pamplona once, and for keeps. It is all there, as it always was, except forty thousand tourists have been added. There were not twenty tourists when I first went there… four decades ago.”

One wonders what Hemingway would have thought about today’s 1.5 million San Fermín participants. What if bull-running is banned in Pamplona? Will the stars like Rafael Nadal, Carlos Moyá, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Casillas, Iniesta, Xavi actively join the protest, say in Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Madrid? From my limited experience of Spain and Europe, it seems that is highly unlikely. However, if that happens, that would be magical – no less attractive than San Fermín itself.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)