Since the time of our ancient kings, Sri Lanka has been a nation blessed with bountiful harvests from all provinces. We were once proudly remembered as the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia. It then becomes obvious that we, as humans, have always depended on cows and bulls - the docile cows for their milk, the bulls for many forms of work in the paddy field, to the pulling of bullock carts.

It was very common and acceptable for people centuries ago to proudly display their livestock. It was a status symbol for all farmers, whether they be Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims. Similarly racing their bull drawn carts was a pastime in villages. January 14 is marked on our calendars as Thai Pongal, the global Hindu festival of fertility and renewal with an emphasis on farming and harvesting. As we all know the following day is the traditional observance of ‘mattu pongal’ a day set aside to appreciate and venerate cows and bulls, along with other farm animals such as goats. In this narrative, I wish to talk about the tradition of ‘mattu savari’ the bull races that take place in the Northern Province.

On a recent visit to Jaffna in 2019, I ventured towards the Vaddukkodai area where I encountered a young man named Thanaraj in his early twenties.

He is a young man who is gainfully employed but engages in an ancient hobby, the sport of racing bulls. After talking to him for half an hour and gradually gaining his trust, he agreed to take me to his village of Kottaikaddu, 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 supposedly stood centuries ago. We journeyed by a three-wheeler traversing on dusty roads, with lush paddy fields that added a refreshing glance.

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

The few families who live here remain simple and keep a low profile. They take pride for having sustained for generations their passion for rearing the magnificent bulls, mostly white in appearance. The history of cart racing is popular in many villages in and around Jaffna.

The tradition of cart racing is very popular in India with grand races taking place, where winners take away mega prizes. However, the pulse of bull racing in Jaffna and other areas is making a steady resurgence. I must pause here to make a strong point. There are some folks who are critical about bull racing calling it a violation of animal rights. Then let us briefly detour and focus on horse racing in places such as Nuwara Eliya or even the global arena. Horses are raced and thousands of dollars earned in advertising and prizes. Is it ‘cool’ to wear brimmed hats, sip a beer and watch horse races because it’s a ‘British induced’ sport. My point is why be critical of something and not criticize the other which is simply a sport. Unlike in Spain the bulls do not end up as a well-done steak in Jaffna! Also let us not brand these traditions as ‘Tamil’ or ‘Sinhalese’ (bull racing is done by both communities) but be able to say they are Sri Lankan traditions. This will enhance the tourism branding of such events, when tourism is struggling to make a comeback in the aftermath of COVID-19.

We entered a garden in the quaint village of Kottaikaddu, where these majestic bulls were resting. In the North, these bulls are called Vaddakan maddu- a robust breed of bulls with sturdy horns. They come in shades of dapple grey, brown and white. The white bulls are the pride of their owners, for their glorious visual appeal, that is also connected to purity. An old man was seated chewing betel and eyed us from his wooden stool. A few young men gathered around us and began to share their stories. Thanaraj explained, “The tradition in this village says that decades ago people travelled by bullock cart to the Thirukeswaram Kovil in Mannar - a very 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. This was fun. We can assume they would have then decided to organize casual races in the village which later drew crowds from other villages, this is how the bull races (savari) blossomed from our village.”

Some seniors opine 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. A 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 racing condition. The savari (cart races) takes place on Sundays. Sometimes we have to travel to Mannar or other locations such as Madhagal, Sanguveli, Alaveddi, Atchuvely, Pandaitherruppu and Neerveli.

The old man decided to join the conversation. He said, “Today the boys take the bulls and carts by lorry to the race locations. Therefore the bulls are rested. In my days, we had to travel two days before the race, to rest and be ready for the race. It was nice to travel at night with the light from lanterns suspended from the cart. We stopped and cooked our rice and vegetables on the way. We stayed under large trees at night. After reaching the race venue, 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 before the competition.”

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 bulls for fun on a short track. In the A section are the real star class bulls that can run up to 40 Km per hour. Each bull is valued between 1–2 million. 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 admired by the village girls. Today the prizes range from a gold coin to bicycles. Races take place after Thai Pongal on a small scale, just as a pastime.

In the few villages where the racing communities live, they respect the local koddiyettrum festival. Each major village has a ‘kulaswamy’ a village-based deity. A kodi (flag) is raised to venerate that deity. During the week, long religious ritual racing is forbidden as superstition has imposed that the cart and rider would crash. Subsequently on another visit to Jaffna, I was able to witness the race. Wow! what an atmosphere with so many people. Loudspeakers blared with old Tamil songs. Young men and women bunched up under the shade of trees. Foreign tourists took photos that would enhance their social media posts. The bulls raced and we were awed. The turning wheels raised columns of dust. As Hindus celebrate Thai Pongal followed by Mattu Pongal the bond between cattle and humans is truly appreciated, which is understood by all farmers in Sri Lanka.