Intangible Heritage

The Blitz of the Bahour Bulls

Bahour bull-cart pull

Eve­ry Janua­ry, Sou­th India cele­bra­tes Pon­gal, whi­ch marks the start of the har­vest sea­son. The four-day fes­ti­val begins with “Bho­gi,” the bur­ning of the bad and the old – a tra­di­tion whi­ch ori­gi­nal­ly was meant to burn the old that­ch roof and repla­ce it with a new one, but whi­ch has now trans­for­med to bur­ning old clo­thes and other unwan­ted mate­rial goods, and some­ti­mes rem­nants of bad habits like emp­ty ciga­ret­te packets and alco­hol bot­tles. The next three days of the fes­ti­val are enjoyed with feasts on the first har­vests of rice (eaten in its sweet boi­led form, a dish also known as pon­gal) and sugar cane. But the most exci­ting events of Pon­gal hap­pen on the third and four­th days – the cele­bra­tions of cows and bulls, the beasts of bur­den who play such an impor­tant role in har­ves­ting live­li­hood.

One of the oldest tra­di­tions of Maat­tu Pon­gal (lite­ral­ly mea­ning “Cow Pon­gal,” whi­ch is cele­bra­ted on the third or four­th day, varying by vil­la­ge) is the bul­lo­ck cart pull. Varia­tions of this can still be seen in some vil­la­ges, like that of Bahour, just sou­th of Pon­di­cher­ry. A pro­ces­sion of bul­lo­ck carts begins by eve­ning, but pre­pa­ra­tions take pla­ce throu­ghout the day. Bulls’ horns are pain­ted and ador­ned with flo­wers or bal­loons, and bells are hung from their brid­les. The carts are also deco­ra­ted with palm lea­ves and bal­loons. As the carts assem­ble along the road, locals begin clim­bing in them, squee­zing small chil­dren onto the laps of their siblings, parents, or cou­sins, to fit more peo­ple than the bull seems capa­ble of pul­ling. At near­by tem­ples, musi­cians bang rhythms on drums and per­for­mers dan­ce and spin bam­boo sticks.

Trac­tors, the modern ver­sion of the tra­di­tio­nal bul­lo­ck cart, are deco­ra­ted in lights, lea­ves, and flo­wers. They pull their own carts of Maat­tu Pon­gal enthu­siasts and speed down the oppo­si­te side of the street in a para­de of their own. Some men wear sequin­sed cos­tu­mes over exag­ge­ra­ted bel­lies and whi­te plas­tic masks, see­min­gly in imi­ta­tion of sumo wrest­lers. They join crowds of young men dan­cing to drum beats and bugle calls in the streets.

Anti­ci­pa­tion grows wai­ting for the bull cart pro­ces­sion to begin. Then sud­den­ly, they’re off! The bulls pull their carts in starts and stops accor­ding to traf­fic flow, trot­ting along to the bea­ting of drums, the jan­gle of the bells around their own necks, and the chee­ring of the crowds along the side­li­nes and of the pas­sen­gers in their carts. “Pon­ga­lo Pon­gal!” “Maat­tu Pon­gal!” “Hap­py Pon­gal!” Eve­ryo­ne cheers and waves as the cele­bra­ted bulls para­de through the streets of town and around the tem­ple.

Peo­ple riding motor­cy­cles wiz by through the nar­row lanes on either side of the carts, hon­king their horns and chee­ring along with the rest of the par­ti­ci­pants. The bulls, bred for cart pul­ling and accus­to­med to the sounds of the Indian streets, keep trot­ting along unper­tur­bed. Their pain­ted horns bob along to the beat of their trot as if joi­ning their humans in cele­bra­ti­ve dan­ce.

The sky grows dark but the Pon­gal spi­rit is loud and bright. The dan­cing conti­nues even after the pro­ces­sion comes to its end and the bull carts have emp­tied. The vil­la­ge of Bahour rings in the har­vest with the most fes­ti­ve of Maat­tu Pon­gals.