Pongal 2023: Indigenous cattle, prized in Tamil Nadu, are on the decline; can they be saved

Whether or not Jallikattu helps conserve Tamil Nadu’s indigenous breeds of cattle, the fact remains that these breeds are in peril like their counterparts across most of the country

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 14 January 2023
Pongal 2023: Presenting the Kangayam, the pride of Kongu Nadu
A Kangayam bull. Photo: KS Sivasenapathy A Kangayam bull. Photo: KS Sivasenapathy

It is that time of the year again. Pongal 2023 promises to be a boisterous one after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the last two decades, one of the biggest festivals of the Tamil Calendar has also become an occasion for a slugfest between animal rights and Tamil cultural activists over the sport of Jallikattu.

The more appropriate term is, in fact, eru thazhuvuthal or ‘bull baiting’, says Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, the managing trustee of Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation at Kuttapalayam, 80 kilometres from Coimbatore. 

Indeed, Tamil cultural activists have been at pains to say that their revered sport is not like the bull fighting of Ibreria and hispanophone Latin America. The bull is not killed in the end. Even more importantly, they say, the sport helps to keep indigenous zebu populations healthy.

How? That is because male cattle would otherwise be killed as agriculture today is mechanised and male draught animals are no longer as valued as they once were. 

Read Raging Bull: How the controversy over Jallikattu ended up saving the Pulikulam breed

Animal rights activists though, say there is no evidence of the claim that Jallikattu helps sustain indigenous cattle populations or prevents the cow-bull ratio from getting skewed. 

Let us, for a moment, park this contentious debate and delve into the fascinating ties of the Tamil people with cattle.  

Cattle in ancient Tamil Nadu

“Land and cattle were considered as wealth and the word Maadu (cattle) actually meant wealth,” Heritage Reverence of Cattle during the Sangam Age by Udhaya Nandini et al and published in 2020 in the journal Asian Agri-History notes.

Kamban or Kambar, the noted Tamil poet who gave us the Kambaramayana, compares the scar formed by the yoke of a plough on the neck of a bull to the blue neck of the deity Shiva.  

Read First, justify jallikattu?

So important were cattle for the ancient Tamils that they raided and fought battles over them (like the ancient Irish in Táin Bó Cúailnge). The word for ‘cattle raid’ in Sangam literature is Aaneerai Kavarthal

“In Tolkappiyam, there are 14 Tarais (sub-situation describing a particular thing) describing seizures and 21 Tarais describing recovery of the cattle,” Heritage Reverence of Cattle during the Sangam Age adds.

Many of the Nadukal or hero stones that dot the landscape of what used to be the ancient Tamil country were erected in honour of those who died during battles over cattle.   

Such a storied history means that cattle continued to be prized in modern Tamil society. The state is home to five recognised indigenous zebu (originating in the Indian subcontinent as opposed to the Taurine cattle of Europe) breeds. These are:

  • Kangayam or Kangeyam (Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Namakkal and Salem districts in the western part of state — the historic Kongu Nadu region).
  • Bargur (Bargur hills in Erode district).
  • Umbalachery (Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam in the Kaveri delta or the Chola Nadu region).
  • Pulikulam (Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts of the southern Pandya Nadu region).
  • Alambadi (Dharmapuri district).

“Evolution of breeds is an interplay of nature and culture,” says Sivasenapathy, who is also the secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s environment wing.

“In south India, most people are culturally non-vegetarian. Also, they had to draw water from very deep wells. Hence, they developed draught breeds of cattle which could be used for this purpose. These include the Killari in Maharashtra, the Amrit Mahal, the Krishna Valley and the Hallikar in Karnataka and the Kangayam, Umbalachery, Pulikulam, Bargur, Alambadi, Theni and Malaimadu in Tamil Nadu,” he adds.

Pongal itself celebrates the reverence for cattle in Tamil society. Mattu Pongal, the third day of the four-day festival is dedicated to bovines. They are cleaned, decorated and worshipped that day. The animals are also fed the festival prasadam. 

Mattu Pongal is also the day of eru thazhuvuthal. 

Back to the debate. Whether or not jallikattu helps conserve Tamil Nadu’s indigenous breeds of cattle, the fact remains that these breeds are in peril like their counterparts in most of the country. 

Sivasenapathy informs that Kangayam numbers were 4.4 million in the 1940s, 1.174 million in the 1990s and 0.4 million in 2004. 

The other breeds too are not doing too well. ‘Nil’ says the ‘Population status’ section of the Alambadi breed in the Animal Genetic Resources of Tamil Nadu website, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. 

The figures for other breeds are given as (for 2013) :

  • Bargur (14,154).
  • Kangayam (80,620).
  • Umbalachery (39,050).
  • Pulikulam (7,352).

“There is a Tamil rural tradition called Aachi Mattu where new mothers return to their nuptial homes six months after giving birth, with cattle as gifts for their in-laws. These can be the Kangayam in western Tamil Nadu, the Umbalachery in the east and the Pulikulam in the south. We can’t give them Friesian or Jersey cattle for Aachi Mattu. This is something we will have to consider when we mull over why indigenous cattle should be conserved,” says Sivasenapathy. 

The polarising debate over Jallikattu will continue in the years ahead. Both sides are unwilling to concede defeat. But the issue of diminishing indigenous breeds is one that needs immediate attention.    

The import of exotic foreign breeds to the country for the purpose of increasing milk yields continues to impact the livestock sector. Even more worryingly, we may not know the origins of the livestock that we have.

In May last year, Down To Earth reported how the origins of over half of India’s cattle, sheep, goats, horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and pigs were not known, according to a then-newly released government report.

Read Over half of India’s cattle, goats, sheep and swine are non-descript: Government

The priority thus is to first know about our livestock. In this context, DTE recently reported as to how the number of indigenous livestock breeds had risen after the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources released new figures. 

Read India now has 212 indigenous livestock breeds after ICAR-NBAGR registers 10 new ones

“Indigenous cattle are the best to maintain in these times of climate change. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has a programme called the Globally Important Heritage System. They clearly state that native cattle seeds and systems of agriculture are very important during times of climate change. Hence, we need to conserve native cattle,” says Sivasenapathy.

“We have tried to create awareness about native cattle since founding our non-profit in 2008. We have tried to advocate the use of cowdung and urine in place of nitrogenous fertilisers. Natural farming is another reason why we need to conserve native livestock,” he adds.

Indeed, indigenous zebu cattle are a part of the subcontinent’s living natural heritage. If they are lost, thousands of years of knowledge, custom, tradition and history will be gone forever. On this, if not other issues, all of us can agree. Happy Pongal! 

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