To ban or not to ban: How the ancient sport of Jallikattu (bull-taming) is being regulated across India

Published 20 February 2017 By: Aahna Mehrotra, Anurag Tandon

Bull waiting to charge

As Southern India's most important cultural festival, Pongal,[1] gets underway this year, the sport of Jallikattu, seems poised to resume after a 7-year legal battle including a ban during last year's festival. Like similar battles in Spain, the fight to end Jallikattu has been led by local and international animal rights groups against those wanting to uphold long held religious and cultural practices. The battles have also played out larger political tensions between legislatures and the courts.

The article explores the legal and political arguments that have engulfed the sport over the last 7 years. A comparative analysis has been undertaken with the sport of bull fighting as carried out in Spain, which analysis includes the similarity in arguments taken in favour of the observance of the sport in their respective jurisdiction. Specifically, it looks at:

  • What is the sport of Jallikattu and what is its cultural significance?
  • A chronology of events and legal proceedings relating to the regulation and temporary banning of the sport;
  • The recent widespread protests to reinstate the sport;
  • A comparison to the situation of bull-fighting in Spain;
  • Authors’ comments 


Jallikattu: The Sport – Gladiatorial game, or indispensable ritual?

Jallikattu is a sport that is frequently described as “bull-taming”. The earliest known mention of it in India dates back to Sangam literature, which belongs to the Classic Tamil Period 2000 years ago (as depicted on seals available from the period).[2]

Jallikattu, involves the release of a bull, through a narrow tunnel like entrance, into a large enclosure, where individuals, or groups of persons (the number of participants usually varies from 1, up to teams of 7 to 9 persons) attempt to subdue the bull, or hold onto its hump or horns for a short period of time. 

The term “Jallikattu”, a Tamil word, is derived from “Callikattu”, where “Calli” means coins, and “Kattu” means a package. As a whole, the term refers to the ceremonial pouches tied to a bull’s horns, which would contain gold or silver coins. In earlier times, participants would often fight to get to the pouches, displaying their bravado.[3] 

In modern iterations of the sport, the bull has to be tamed by participants by either holding on to the bull for a pre-determined period of time, or by gaining control of the animal, or by trying to subdue the animal using the rope tied around the bull.[4]

The sport has faced the ire of animal welfare activists due to the treatment of the bulls. As observed by the Supreme Court in its judgment dated May 7, 2014,[5] the bulls can be subjected to extreme pain: their tails bitten and twisted; poked with knives and sticks; and irritant solutions rubbed in their eyes and noses to agitate them. To make subduing the bulls easier, ropes are also tied to the animals, often through the nose, which can cause profuse bleeding.

The conditions the animals are kept was also described by the court as deplorable, often with no drinking water, unsanitary conditions, and a large number of animals crowded into a small space. The bulls can be also force-fed liquor, and have chilli powder rubbed onto their eyes, before the event.


Chronology of key events 

  • Jallikattu was initially banned by the Madras High Court in 2009, when a petition was filed asking for bullock-cart races (Rekla race) to be allowed. The Court not only refused the petition (reversing the first instance decision), but also declared in their Order that all similar events perpetrating cruelty against animals were to be banned (arguably going beyond the ambit of the petition). The Order required the State to take all steps to ban all types of Jallikattu, Rekla Race, Oxen Race or any other entertainment involving causing cruelty to animals in the State of Tamil Nadu.
  • However, the State then passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009,[6] which permitted Jallikattu to be observed (notwithstanding the High Court Order).
  • In 2010, the Supreme Court of India heard a petition filed by theAnimal Welfare Board of India (“AWBI”)requesting an absolute ban on any form of activity relating to jallikattu across the country. The Supreme Court refused to grant an outright ban, but instead placed a number of restrictions upon the sport, including rigid requirements to be fulfilled before, during, and after the event.[7] It also required all animals involved in Jallikattu to be registered with the AWBI. The State Government and the AWBI were directed to ensure that the welfare of animals was duly observed, and persons handling the animals were required to ensure that adequate precaution was taken to protect their welfare.
  • Then on July 11, 2011, The Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MoEF”), issued a Notification that excluded bulls from the category of “performing animals”, thereby effecting a de facto prohibition on the participation of bulls in Jallikattu.[8]
  • The pivotal case came in 2014, when the Supreme Court in Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja and Ors.,[9] placed an outright ban on Jallikattu. It took into consideration the inhumane and cruel ways in which bulls were treated, ruling that it violated Section 3 (which pertains to the duty of care imposed upon persons who are in charge of animals) and Section 11 (which defines various instances of cruelty to animals and lists out the punishment thereof) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.[10] 

    The Court also held the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009 to be unconstitutional, as it was in violation of Article 254(1)[11] of the Constitution of India; and it upheld the validity of the MoEF’s Notification.
  • On January 7, 2016, MoEF’s Notification was later modified by a Notification of the Central Government, pursuant to which “bulls” were permitted to be used in performances as per the provisions of Section 22 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.[12] There were conditions laid down in the Notification to be observed during Jallikattu (the Notification also dealt with bullock cart races which are usually held in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat). The Notification was challenged in the Supreme Court by animal welfare bodies and the AWBI (as it effectively circumvented their 2014 ban). This led to the Court issuing a stay on the Notification, preventing it applying for the Pongal celebrations of 2016. Subsequently the Central Government decided to withdraw its Notification given its practical effects of permiting Jallikattu[13] in circumvention of the Supreme Court’s ban.

(2) Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1), conduct of “Jallikattu”, subject to such rules and regulations as may be framed by the State Government, shall be permitted.[14]

  • The Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Department of Tamil Nadu Government also passed corresponding Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Conduct of Jallikattu) Rules 2017 (the Rules)[15] The Rules set out revised regulations for the sport, detailing the processes for its observance and what is and is not permitted.  

  • The Act and the Rules were brought to the attention of the Supreme Court. In a hearing on 31 January 2017, the Court criticized the State Government’s lawyers’, informing them that once the highest Court in the land had ruled on an issue, their position must be maintained. When the Senior Counsel appearing for the Government informed the Court that its judgment was being complied with, the Supreme Court Bench was quick to retort that the protests of the people (described below) were disrespectful to the Court.[16] Though the Court did not stay the Tamil Nadu, it made its displeasure known to the lawyers present.
  • Accordingly, as of today, the Act permits the observance of Jallikattu during Pongal in the State of Tamil Nadu, notwithstanding the 2014 Supreme Court’s ban.


Why the Act was passed: the widespread protests in Tamil Nadu against the ban

To understand why the Act was passed, one needs an understanding of the situation on the ground in Tamil Nadu. January 2017 saw widespread protests in Chennai Marina against the ban on Jallikattu, given its cultural importance and significance in the region. The protests were initially peaceful, but soon turned violent with a number of vehicles being burnt, and numerous people being injured in the fray that ensued.[17] The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Shri Thiru O. Panneerselvam, wrote a letter addressed to the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, asking the Government of India to promulgate an Ordinance ‘removing the legal impediments enabling the conduct of Jallikattu during Pongal, 2017’.[18] The Prime Minister, in turn, offered hope that by working together, Jallikattu would be observed in the present year.

In light of the mass hysteria and the public resentment against the ban, the Governor of Tamil Nadu, Shri C. Vidyasagar Rao felt he had no choice but to pass the Act.[19]

Arguably, the Act circumvents the Supreme Court’s ban giving rise to interesting questions of legal precedence. However, until it is formally struck down by the Court, the prevailing view is that for it is valid law, and that Jallikattu may be legally observed under its auspices.

Interestingly, the AWBI challenged the Act in the Supreme Court on January 25, 2017, but chose to withdraw the petition the very next day. As per information available in the public domain, the Chairman of AWBI had stated that the Board would not be re-filing its petition.[20]


A comparison to the legal challenges against bull-fighting in Spain

In contrast to the Indian Courts’ stand on Jallikattu, the Spanish spectacle of bull-fighting (colloquially referred to as “corrida de toros”) has been celebrated, and despite being more gory and painful for the bulls (ultimately leading to the death of the bull), is the 10th most popular paid leisure activity (as per a poll conducted by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 2014-2015, available here). The event involves 3 successive stages where a bull is gradually weakened, which ultimately allows the matador to stab the bull through its heart.

Bullfighting in Spain has been held since 1726, when Francisco Romero of Ronda, Spain introduced the swords which are still used by the matadors in present day bouts.[21] However, the sport is no stranger to opposition. Since the early nineteenth century, a number of groups have opposed bull fighting as being cruel and barbaric.

Organisations like PETA, Antitauromaquia[22], StopOurShame[23] and PETA have taken up cudgels against bull fighting and bull running (which takes place in Pamplona), which they term as a “bloodthirsty pastime”.[24] As per information provided by PETA, support for the sport of bull fighting was declining, with the Catalonian Parliament banning bull fighting in 2012. However, this ban was later overturned by the Catalonian Court which held that banning bull fighting was a failure on the part of the State to preserve common cultural heritage.[25]

Interestingly, in stark similarity to the arguments advanced by the State of Tamil Nadu in the Indian Supreme Court, the observations of the Catalonian Court in its judgment were that Parliament was free to draft rules and regulations regarding the safety of the animals and persons involved, but the sport could not be banned altogether.



Though the Indian Supreme Court has held that the welfare of animals to be of utmost importance and imposed a ban on Jallikattu, the collective resolve of the people of Tamil Nadu has (for the time being) appeared to have succeeded in persuading the Government to reconsider the situation and allow Jallikattu for the Pongal festival.

Arguments advanced before the Courts in India, and the observations of the Court (which were similar to the observations of the Catalonian Court) recognised both sports as being an integral part of the religion of the people, as well as acknowledging the observance of both sports since ancient times.

Whereas both sports were initially banned, the ban was later overturned on the premise that the sport could not be banned outright, but restrictions and conditions could be imposed on the observance of the sport to ensure that animals were not mistreated, and that humans participating in the respective sports would not suffer serious injury.

Although the intention of animal welfare activists is to ensure the proper treatment of animals, and the prevention of any cruelty to animals, people for the sport argue that these sports have become an integral and irreplaceable part of their religious practices (Jallikattu is held during the festival of Pongal, which is usually celebrated in the months of January or February).

The Courts (in two different jurisdictions) have given similar reasons for reversal of the ban on such sports by observing that it would be incorrect for the State to ban such sports altogether. Echoing the same thought, it has been observed that there can be a number of rules and regulations in place to regulate the conduct of these sports.

At present, the AWBI has withdrawn its petition before the Supreme Court,[26] while PETA is said to be considering its options on whether it would challenge the new legislation passed by the State of Tamil Nadu. For now, it remains to be seen the future course of action animal activists and other organisations would take, but till the Court conclusively decides on any petitions before it, the people have attained a minor victory with the Jallikattu celebrations scheduled to be held during Pongal 2017.


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Aahna Mehrotra

Aahna Mehrotra

Founder, AM Sports Law & Management Co

Ms. Aahna Mehrotra is the principal lawyer at AM Sports Law and Management Co. She was called to the Bar in May 2011 and has gained considerable exposure through her experiences at different institutions worldwide.

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Anurag Tandon

Anurag Tandon

Anurag is an Associate in the Sports Law department at DPSA-TMT. DPSA-TMT is a merged entity of DPSA Legal and TMT Law Practice, founded in October, 2016. 

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