Horns and wheels towards victory | Sunday Observer

Horns and wheels towards victory

The Northern Province has many alluring charms. It is one region of our island that always dazzles me on my media assignments. On a recent visit to Jaffna, I ventured towards the Vaddukkodai area where I encountered a young man named Thanaraj. In his early twenties. He is a young man who lives out an adventure that most youth cannot imagine.

Having earned his trust, he agreed to take me to his village of Kottai- Kaddu, which is on the southern border of Vaddukkodai. The village according to legend derives its name from an old rock formation where a small Fort had stood centuries ago.

Today the remnants of the Fort are no more and the area is in a dense thicket of trees, hence the name Kottai (Fort) within the Kaddu (forest).

There is not much beauty in this area, but it is famous for a few families who live here maintaining a very old Tamil tradition- the skill of racing bullock carts. In this digitally dominated era there are still 10 families in Kottai- Kaddu who have for generations managed to sustain their identity and passion. The history of cart racing is popular in many countries- using horses and bulls.

The Tamil tradition of cart racing is very popular in India with grand races taking place. Yet the pulse of bull racing in Jaffna and other areas is slowly making a resurgence.

We entered a garden where the prized bulls were resting. In the North these bulls are called Vaddakan maddu- a robust breed of bulls with magnificent horns. They come in shades of dapple grey, brown and white. The white bulls are the pride of their owners, for their majestic visual appeal.

An old man who had probably retired from racing sat and chewed betel and eyed us from his wooden stool. A few young men gathered around us and began to share their story. Thanaraj explained “The tradition in this village says that decades ago people travelled by bullock cart to the Thirukeswaram Kovil in Mannar- a long journey. After their pilgrimage, on the return journey in order to add some enjoyment they would just race each other from point A to point B. They would have then decided to organise casual races in the village, this is how the bull races (savari) came into our village”.

The Vaddakan breed of cattle has its origins in the Vanni region and in Mannar. Here they are bred in herds and left to forage in large gardens, under the shade of Palymrah trees. Another young man added “Our bulls are special to us. We feed them on a careful diet of punnac, gram and flour which is pounded from paddy. The food is given to them in a dry thick paste - this is to ensure that the nutrition is absorbed rapidly by the animal. Water is given from time to time. We want these bulls to be in good condition. The savari (cart races) takes place on Sundays. Sometimes we have to travel to Mannar or other locations like Madhagal, Sanguveli, Alaveddi, Atchuvely, Pandaitherruppu and Neerveli. The day before the race we bathe the bulls”. Perhaps by divine providence that evening there was a practice race in the Kottai- Kaddu area for us to witness. Some bulls were being exercised by the owners.

The old man decided to join the conversation and shared his experience. He said “Today the boys take the bulls and carts by lorry to the race locations. Then the bulls are rested. In my day we had to travel a day or two before the race, to rest and be ready for the race. It was nice to travel at night with the light from lanterns. We stopped and cooked our rice and vegetables on the way. We made large buckets of tea (with no sugar) and gave the bulls to drink hours before the race. Like for a human the tea soothes the animal”.

The bull racing youth with some seniors have now formed a racing committee (sangam) which has rules for the bulls and riders. The wooden carts must always have a pair of bulls. The racing divisions are A-B-C-D. In the D section boys race the young calves for fun. In the A section are the real star class bulls that can run up to 40 Km per hour. Each bull is valued between 10- 20 lakhs. The A class division race is the crowd puller, with locals and curious foreigners joining the excitement. In the old days winning the race was an honour and the winner would be entice by the village girls. Today the prizes range from gold coins to branded bicycles.

In the few villages where the racing communities live they respect the local koddiyettrum festival. Each village has a ‘kulaswamy’ a village oriented deity. A flag (kodi) is raised in honour of that deity. During the week long religious ritual racing is forbidden as superstition has imposed that the cart and rider would crash.

It was time to walk through a fence into a large dry ground. Many had gathered to see the practice run, and few had come to see us!! The bulls are tied to the cart. The wheels are given a final inspection.

A white flag is waved (not red as in the movies). The bulls and riders spring into action. It was amazing to see this - My first bullock cart race.

The riders angled dangerously above the speeding bulls. It is said some have fallen off the carts. Yet this is the thrill of racing. The sun set on the village of Kottai- Kaddu. The carts slowly passed by. The vibrant Tamil tradition still kept moving.