Jallikattu & Dhirio: 2 Popular Bull fights synonymous with Indian festivals


Angelina Saul

Last Updated:


The bull fight is a famous ancient sport and betting game. It’s played in many places, despite being controversial. 

Jallikattu, held in Tamil Nadu, and Dhirio, held in Goa, are India’s two popular bullfighting games played during particular festivals.

bullfighting on a beach in india at jallikattu
Dhirio in Goa

Bullfighting in India

Not every bullfight game demands to kill the bull in the end. There are non-blood games too. Some fights are between the bull and one or more humans, while some are between two bulls. Then some fought in a ring while others fought in the open.

The most famous bullfighting game style is the Spanish one, called ‘corrida de toros’, meaning the coursing of bulls. This game style is dangerous for the bull and matador. A matador means a bullfighter. 

The traditional game involves three matadors who get six assistants each. A matador fights two bulls. The game starts with the bull sent into a ring. In the end, the bull is killed by the matador using a steel sword called ‘Estoque’. Many stages or steps are involved in playing this game.  

Based on the matador’s performance, the public may request the president to reward the matador by giving him one ear of the bull. If the matador performed exceptionally well, both ears get awarded to him. He may get awarded the bull’s tail in some rural places. And, if the audience and the matador feel that the bull has fought very bravely, they may spare the bull’s life. But, this happens rarely, and the bull’s breeder has to agree to take it back. If all are okay to spare the bull, the president will grant a pardon called ‘indulto’. If this happens, this bull returns to the ranch and becomes a seed bull forever. 

Bullfighting is not legal throughout the world. It is legal in most parts of Portugal, Spain, some southern France, and certain Hispanic American countries. In India, bullfights that have the animals killed or maimed are considered a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code 1860 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA).

This game has not been a religious practice but a part of a nation’s/state’s culture. Hence you will see many people protesting to lift the ban on this sport. 

Let’s understand the meaning and style of the Dhirio and Jallikattu games played in Goa and Tamil Nadu, respectively. Both bullfight games don’t have armed participants, unlike the Spanish version. 

Table of Contents

Goan Festival Bull Fighting Game: Dhirio

Bullfights are synonymous with Goa’s tradition. They are visible during festivals and after the harvest season. Two bulls, either two buffaloes or two oxen, fight until one pulls back its horns and flees. A buffalo and an ox cannot be paired together in such a bull fight. People bet on these bulls to win money.

Though bullfights got banned in 1997 in Goa, they still happen silently. South Goa is more famous for it as compared to the North. The fights take place in old rice fields on a quiet. Because the game is no longer legal, there are no rules about the distance to be kept between the audience and the bulls. There is no fencing in these types of games. As a result, many people get injured while watching the game. 

The game requires the bulls to lock their horns and fight each other. Their caretakers/owners sharpen their horns. The bulls try to stab their opponent’s neck, resulting in bloodshed. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and a few locals are against Dhirio because of animal cruelty. There are a few times when the bull gets poorly injured. 

Goan Festival Bull Fighting Game Dhirio
Dhirio Bull Fighting
Our source asked us to blur the faces in the image

How much do bulls cost?

Bulls get bought from Belgaum in Maharashtra and a few other states for the bullfight. Their price ranges from ₹1,00,000 to ₹3,00,000. Some sellers let you check if the bull is good enough for a bullfight by having a trial round. Some may not permit such tests. Hence, the owner will have a test round with another’s bull after purchasing the bull. They are not used for the bullfight if it doesn’t meet the owner’s expectations. They will get sent to slaughterhouses at times.

The bulls that are good to go ahead are taken care of by their owners/ caretakers. There is a proper diet maintained so that they are fit and strong. Many sheds take care of bulls owned by others. They charge a monthly fee of ₹8000-10000 per bull,  including the feed. 

How does Dhirio work?

The organizers decorate the ground/field with flags before the fight starts and play loud music. There is no dress code.  Most of these rice fields are on the outskirts of the city. Only known members are informed. New members come through word of mouth from the existing members. The owners of the bulls bet on their bulls.

The winner takes away the prize, which is the betted amount. The audience bet among themselves. There is no bookie as such. For every ₹1000, the one who wagers on the winning bull will get ₹1500-3000. The stake amount increases when there is an injury. In this game, the wagering amount and the winning percentage on these bets are not always the same. The spectators keep shouting the name of their favourite bull throughout the game. Some famous bull names are Tyson, Rocky, Jackson, Rambo and Hitler.

The game lasts approximately 12 minutes before a bull opens the lock by pulling back its horns and running away. The bull loses the game once it pulls back. A bull may lock horns again in seconds or a few minutes. If the horns remain locked for a more extended period, caretakers/bull owners intervene and separate the bulls.

How is Bull fighting dangerous?

This sport is risky. The animals, the spectators and the caretakers can get injured. In intervals, water is poured on the animals to agitate or cool the animals. Sometimes mud is rubbed on their back. The proximity of the one doing this is dangerously close. And because no fence is involved, the audience also faces a threat.

When a bull releases its horns from the lock, it runs away in any direction. It is primarily unaware of the surroundings as the game happens in unfamiliar places. So it runs frantically to save its life. The owners and caretakers run behind it to keep it from getting lost or injured. When the bull tries to flee, all it knows is to get away as fast as possible. It harms anyone who is in the way. Since people form a circle while watching this game, someone is bound to get hurt.

Few politicians in Goa are trying to get this game legalized by having some rules set. They do not wish any harm to the animal. Nor do they want to hurt the sentiments of the people who enjoy this game. For the safety of the bulls, one suggested putting rubber caps on the bull’s horns. By doing so, it could reduce the bloodshed. We do not know if this will get legalized. But, this game has not stopped despite the ban and the injuries. We hope the game is played safely for entertainment purposes. 

Tamil Nadu’s traditional bull taming game: Jallikattu

Jallikattu is a bull-taming game called ‘Embracing the Bull’ played on the third day of Mattu Pongal. The harvest festival of Pongal lasts for four days. Mattu means cattle. Farmers pray for their cattle on this day. Men participate to show their strength by stopping the bull and taking the prize tied to the bull’s horns. This game is over 2000 years old. Earlier, men played this game for marriage. Women would get to marry the brave men who win the game. Today it is played to show one’s strength and also to find stud bulls that are strong and good for breeding. The weaker bulls help in cultivating the land in terms of agriculture. 

Farmers depend on Jallikattu to show their and their cattle’s strength. This game also shows how good caretakers they are and if their bull is best for mating cows.

Jallikattu consists of two Tamil words meaning coins and ‘kattu’ meaning package. Hence this game means coins tied to the bull’s horns. The bull’s horns get fastened with a yellow fabric pouch containing coins. 

How is Jallikattu played?

The main rule of the game requires a participant to hold on to the bull’s hump for a limited time or a short distance. A participant gets disqualified if he holds the bull’s tail, neck or horns. The participant should be able to stop the bull and show his strength. In some cases, the participants can hold on to a large knot of flesh teased out by the trainer when the bull was still a calf. 

A participant trying to hold the hump of the bull in Jallikattu

The bulls used for this sport belong to the breed Umbalachery and Pulikulam. The latter is known to be very fierce. Rearing the bulls is not a cheap affair. The bull owners or caretakers spend daily at least 300 to 500 on food. With a proper diet plan, the bull remains healthy. Trainers help them train in a specially created place that has soft mud. The bulls have to also swim twice a week in a nearby pond. 

Does Jallikattu have variations?

This sport has a few variations.

  1. In the most common version Vadi Manjuvirattu, the bull is sent out from a closed area, and participants run to hold the bull’s hump. They do this by wrapping their arms/hands around the hump. Two people cannot try this together.
  2. Another variation of this game, Vēli virattu, has rules similar to the previous one. The only difference being the bull is sent to open ground.
  3. There is a third version of this game known as vatam manjuvirattu. A 49 feet rope gets tied to the bull. However, the bull’s movement is not restricted. A group of seven to nine people attempt to remove the fabric cloth with coins tied to the animal’s horns. This game can go on for thirty minutes.  

The game rules may change from place to place.  Alanganallur, in Madurai, is very famous for this sport.

Prizes won by the bulls, their tamers, and winners are simple. Those who bet on this game make money. Spectators bet on the bulls and win money.

Why was Jallikattu banned?

Participants and bulls get injured during the game most of the time. The Supreme Court of India banned this sport in 2014 after receiving petitions from PETA and FIAPO (Federation of India Animal Protection Agencies). In 2017 people protested against this ban. Following the protest, the government exempted Jallikattu from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.  However, please note the legal status of this game is still unclear. The government lifted the ban after setting a few conditions. 

Some of the conditions laid by the government while lifting the ban were:

  • The game organisers should get written permission from the collector in charge thirty days before the event. He needs to disclose the exact location.
  • The place used for the fight should be double-barricaded. 
  • The Animal Husbandry Department has to conduct tests to prove that drugs or any other form of irritants had no part to play in the training or rearing of these animals.
  • The bull’s height has to be a minimum of 120cm. The Umbalachery bulls face a disadvantage here as they are not that tall. 

What helped lift the ban on Jallikattu?

One of the two main reasons for lifting the ban were:

  1. Jallikattu is an ancient tradition that is dear to the natives of Tamil Nadu.
  2. Farmers get to rear the best bulls that were diminishing in numbers.

Whether the laws surrounding this game are clear or not, it is played annually and attended by people in large numbers. 

Will bull fights continue

Bullfighting is nothing new. People have played it for thousands of years. The reason for playing this game has changed over the years. There are many variations of this sport today. Unlike the Spanish style, the Indian version involves no matador, an armed man, or the compulsory killing of the bull. The sport continues though banned in most countries. People bet on the bulls and win money.  Many people and animals die every year due to the risk involved. But, that hasn’t stopped the people from organizing or playing their sport. People are very attached to their traditions and love to hold on to them and pass them on to other generations by playing them.


What is Dhirio?

The bullfighting game in Goa is called Dhirio.

Which places are most famous for bullfighting in Tamil Nadu?

Alanganallur, Avaniyapuram and Palamedu in the Madurai district are famous for Jallikattu.

What is Pongal?

Pongal is the Tamil New Year & harvesting festival that is celebrated for 4 days from the 14th or 15th of January every year.

What are stud bulls?

Bulls mainly used for mating are called studs or stud bulls.

Are bullfights legal in India?

If the bull gets killed or maimed during a bullfight, it is considered a criminal offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Which Indian state is famous for Jallikattu?

Jallikattu is played in Tamil Nadu.

Is Jallikattu a festival?

Jallikattu is a traditional bull taming game played on Mattu Pongal, which is the third day of the harvest festival, Pongal.