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Jaffna. Traditions combined in a bullock cart ride

Sudarshini Muthulingam

It was after lunch on a Sunday, which meant it wasn’t one of the fast-moving days, and I was browsing through my phone when I received a call. “Let’s go and see the bullock cart race at Vadukkottai.” Said that familiar voice and I agreed without hesitation. Thus, began our afternoon.

If we talk about the Tamil valor of the Jaffna people, we went on and on about how even bullock cart racing is kind of a heroic sport of the Tamils.

In the mid-80s, most of the houses in Jaffna had bullock carts as agriculture was the primary livelihood of the region.

In a bullock cart, the bulls in front of the cart are harnessed by a rope, the rider sits in the front of the carriage, and items are loaded on the back of the cart. During the ride, the driver would talk to the bull so that he would not feel tired. He would tap the cow on its back with a small stick in his hand to keep it as a method of steering.

Even today’s Benz cars can’t compensate for the bullock cart ride. It’s an experience you can feel in your soul.

I sped up the motorcycle to race the midday sun. My friend said it would start at two but it was already ten minutes past two.

We kept on going. I don’t know the streets of Arali, Vaddukottai very well. The accompanying friend told it was still a little farther away.

Traveling down that road full of bumps and potholes was a big challenge. We drove slowly behind some trucks.

My friend pointed towards the small single lane on the left that we followed. The sides of the lane were aligned with palm trees with a small shrubbery at one point. We could see the large open area in the distance where people have gathered.

That’s where the bullock cart ride is going on. The air was filled with the sound of carts, the yelling sounds of the riders, and the cheering sounds of the spectators.

We parked the motorcycle and went inside. Ice cream vans, gram shops, and vadai vendors were circling the area.

The races were in full swing. There was a referee for all those races. As soon as he waved the white flag, they would start riding. And there was another man with a small rod in his hand who made sure events ran smoothly.

The competition was conducted by dividing the bulls into four groups. But I don’t know why that is. I started looking for someone who knew how it’s done in order to get more information about the process. 

Some of the people I inquired with were completely unaware of this. I was a little worried… Am I to go back without this knowledge?

As we were getting ready to leave, someone ran up to us and said, “There is a gentleman over there. Go and ask him and he will be able to tell you about it”.

He must have been around 70 years old but despite his age, his speech and style were majestic. “Can you tell us about this ride” we inquired to which he immediately agreed. We sat down on the green lawn and started listening to the story.

“I am Chinnathambi Mahendram from Alavetti. In 1970 I boarded the cart. My family owned a bullock cart. Therefore the cart has been the perfect option for me since I was a child. My first bullock cart race was in Manpanchanveli, but I was not able to win,” he continued. “This place is the Vatukkottai farmers cluster and the people who ride the bullock carts came together to conduct the cart races here. no one can participate in the cart race as he wishes. There is a procedure for that. One should be a member of the Savari Sangam or the agricultural office or one should have registered with Grama Sevaka by paying the participation fee. Without that, no one can participate. People who wish to participate in this event have to pay a registration fee of one thousand rupees,” he continued.

There are many breeds of bulls such as Periyasenkari, Chinnachenkari and Vadakkan bulls. Raising bulls is not easy, and it takes a lot of manpower to maintain a riding bull. In the past, bulls were fed only fodder like paddy and arukam grass. But now they are just feeding them with “Mass’. If you want to prepare the bulls for the competition, you have to do a variety of things. Bathe the bull and wipe it well with a cloth. The cow has to be driven a long distance, around 5 or 6 kilometres, on a weekly basis and you have to take the cove for a swim in the sea.

Mr Mahendram explained that taking care of the bull is so important as the strength of the bull will determine the winner of the competition most of the time.

It was then that I learned why competitions are held in so many categories. Small calves or toothless calves (two-month-old calves) are included in the ‘U’ group, while the rest, the matured bulls are separated. And bulls from different places can also take part in it.

Just like in martial arts, bullock cart racing was a sport full of accidents, accidents can occur when the side key gets dislodged or when bulls collide with other bulls. These can lead to injuries to the limbs and sometimes even death.

Valuable gifts are sponsored by large shop owners and donors. When such funds are not raised, prizes will be purchased from the entrance fee received from the contestants. Prizes and accolades for success are also given here without failure.

Someone said “Sir, tell the child about you too” and after tapping his forehead with his index finger, with a smirk on his face, he continued. “In 1970, in Manpanchanveli, I started riding in a bullock cart race conducted by the Madhakal Agricultural Association. I have been participating in this competition for over 40 years now. The reason for this is the desire and the strength of the bulls.”

He continued “It was customary for the Jaffna bulls to go to the Vanni and Mannar and for bulls from those areas to come here. Achuveli, Neerveli, Manpanchanveli, Vattukottai, Keerimalai Karugambalai, Vattakachchi, Visuvamadu and Poonakary are the top eight places. Lots of great gifts are awarded this time around. I have won many prizes like that that are displayed at my home even today.”

“Nowadays my bulls are only occasionally taking part in the completion because of their old age.” He looked at me and smiled as we ended our discussion. 

The time has come for us to say goodbye. We said goodbye to him with the promise of me coming another day to meet him and look at the cart and the speed at which it runs with awe. I return home with my friend.

Although the passage of time has brought new things to modern sports, bullock cart Riding is one of the heroic sports of Jaffna. Connected with the lives of the people and their culture, it is a prominent feature especially in the lives of the farmers. They still maintain it and you can see that a large number of people coming to see the events. It is a revelation of how their lives are intertwined with their traditional culture.

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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