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Published: January 18th 2019
“Excuse me Madam, but that’s not a safe place.”
Those were the last words I heard.
Rumbles. Pounding. Thunder.
Bullocks reared, limbs flailed, people scattered. Wild wildness.
He pulled me into the railed barrier, and for 15 seconds, no thoughts, just mouth-open horror as I stared at the powerful animals resisting their drivers and galloping past me.
A few seconds before, I was happily snapping photos of the bullock chariots lined up on the road, one behind the other. Trying to capture the energy darting about.
I was the naive tourist, basking in my happy glow. Feeling fortunate because I was witnessing an event held once a year at Pongal time in just a few villages.
I had wandered on to the road from behind the barrier. For some reason I thought they were lining up to parade down the road in orderly fashion, to be recognized for their performance in the previous race.
Oh so wrong. They were lining up for yet another race.
So when the thunder started, all I could do was try to become part of the barrier and hope it wasn’t needed to stop
a 600-pound bullock.
I survived and thanked the nice man for saving my life. But hey, there were 20 guys in front of the barrier, too—I was just following them.
I think it was the testosterone. Free-flowing—from the drivers, the runners, the fans, the groupies, the crowds. At least 85% men. And then there were the bullocks, with gentle eyes but pointy crescent horns and massive bodies. Definitely testosterone soaking the air.
I dare say some of that stuff gave me a bit of a slam, encouraging me to “hang out” with the teams, congratulating the winners, wandering into the road filled with bullocks ready to blast off. I felt like I needed to go for a long bicycle ride after it was all over.
The teams come from all over south India—Tanjore, Madurai, Sivaganga, Trichy. They compete not for the prize of 22,000 rupees—but for the fame, the glory. As I walked around and talked with the people, I learned that this was an extended family effort. Groups of ten men or more travel together, hauling the animals and the chariot in small trucks. Their groupies come also, riding motorbikes, some riding four to a
bike. Their job is to ride behind the carts, supporting their favorite teams.
Each of the three races is 8 or 10 kilometers, returning to where they started. The animals have to run the entire distance. The driver has to control them. The runner hops off the chariot when he needs and dashes along side, tapping the animals if they stray and yelling commands. He’s barefoot.
A truck with loudspeakers leads the pack. A man shouts, reminds them of the rules, tells the spectators who’s in the lead, who’s passing whom. “Run, run, run!” he yells. Motorcycles follow, honking and belching.
The runners could be Olympic athletes. A man proudly pointed to a tall wiry fellow. “He’s an athlete. Famous all over Tamil Nadu. People know him.”
No doubt, He had runner’s legs. He became my favorite, the one I watched and photographed the most, the one I congratulated for his second place finish, the one I got the selfie with. He was very photogenic.
And afterwards the animals’ sides heave, and froth drips, and their tongues loll out of their mouths. Their handlers light incense, smash coconuts in thanks, rub down their heads. They
are gods, after all. Nandi the bull.
I think they’d rather lead a quiet bullock life, gazing at the world with their soft dark eyes, grazing and walking and pulling a load now and then with a bullock cart not built for racing.
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