Villagers participating in a bull-taming festival on the outskirts of Madurai town. Photo: Reuters

It was a bitter “black Pongal” for people in southern India’s Tamil Nadu as the Supreme Court ban on the traditional bull-taming sport of jallikattu, soured Saturday’s start of the four-day harvest celebrations.

In Madurai district, people clashed with police and more than 20 of them were arrested as they tried to defy the ban on the centuries-old rural sport to uphold their Dravidian culture. Sunday will provide another test, as people in Tamil Nadu celebrate Mattu (cattle) Pongal, when jallikattu is traditionally staged in a big way.

India’s top court last week rejected the latest petition seeking to overturn a 2014 ban on jallikattu on the grounds of animal cruelty.

“We treat bulls like our brothers. At home, they get the same respect and love we get from our family,” said Raghuram K, a supporter of jallikattu from CoimbatoreOnce in a year, we play jallikattu together without harming the animal. What’s wrong about this?”

The sport was organized for a few minutes Friday in Karisalkulam village near Madurai with 22 bulls. Police, however, said only five bulls were used in this symbolic ritual adding that no arrests were made.

More than 2,000 police personnel were deployed late Friday in sensitive areas like Avaniapuram, Palamedu and Alanganallur, locations famous for jallikattu in Madurai district. Still, there were reports of jallikattu being staged in some areas on Saturday.

In the streets, men protested by wearing black bandanas. Bulls sporting the holy red mark on their forehead also stood nearby with the black bandana tied between their horns.

Villagers participating in a bull-taming festival on the outskirts of Madurai town. Photo: Reuters

Political parties, showing rare unity, finally approached the federal government for promulgation of an ordinance to allow the sport.

The federal government is said to have prepared a draft ordinance, which has to be approved by the cabinet and the president. However, sources who didn’t want to be identified said the government has been advised not to promulgate the ordinance.

Animal rights groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) can still appeal against the ordinance and a Supreme Court stay would be a setback for the Modi government, they argue.

The court has already told a group of Tamil Nadu lawyers to mind their own business when they raised the jallikattu issue. Any attempt to hold the sport will be contempt of court and will invite punitive measures.

“PETA knows nothing about jallikattu, which is intrinsically linked to our culture,” Raghuram K said. “This sport is 2,000 years old. When was PETA set up?”

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