Inside India’s ox fighting underground
Despite nationwide bans on the traditional bloodsport, ox fighting continues to survive in spontaneous illegal networks throughout Maharashtra.
By Harrison Johnstone
Deep in India’s rural west, hundreds swarm to watch the spectacle of purpose bred fighting oxen, locking horns and goring flesh in fields located between police service areas.
This is ox fighting – known as Zunj-Spardha in Marathi – and it is the most violent attraction available for the villagers of rural India looking for bloody entertainment.
The custom evolved from the 2,000-year-old practice of Jallikattu, where aggressive bulls are released through crowds of people until they are forced into submission.
However, a 2014 Supreme Court ruling outlawed the use of oxen in both combat and cart racing, after a decade of protest from animal rights activists including PETA India.
Ox breeder Ishaan Chande* lives in a village near Sawantwadi in Mahrashtra’s east.
He says he stopped being actively involved in organising fights after the ban was implemented. However, he still allows one of his oxen to partake in the events.
“The major motivation for me is that if I know the capabilities of my ox, and I’ve trained it and bred it to fight, then I’ll want to make money off it,” he said.
Ishaan is a purist – the training of his oxen begins at birth where a combination of diet and physical activity allows them to sustain a near 700-kilogram muscular frame, at fighting weight.
The oxen are taken for daily exercise, including swimming in the month prior to an event in order to build their strength and stamina.
“This is for our enjoyment… farming oxen are different to fighting oxen and I’m fine with there being two less bulls on my farm – it’s a matter of sheer entertainment.”
Throughout his involvement with the practice, Ishaan has seen 25 of his fighting oxen take to the violent competition. Since the ban, he has reduced his stock to a single ox.
“The practice will never truly be eradicated, to some extent it will always continue,” he said.
Despite restrictions raised by national law, ox fighting events in the area occur monthly.
The popularity of ox fighting still runs strong in the culture of some rural communities; once a fight has been set, word of mouth alone sees hundreds of people gather from local areas.
The Maharashtra region does not support gambling as part of their practice, but there are prizes sponsored by local villagers looking for fame or notoriety.
The minimum prize in the area is 10,000 rupees, which can surge to 51,000 depending on the scale of the event and the willingness of breeders to volunteer fighting oxen.
However, for some farmers, the risk is too great.
Oxen can suffer injuries in the fights, and two of every hundred of the animals to enter an event will die.
If an ox is forced to the ground during a fight, its legs will generally fracture.
Major arteries in the neck are particularly vulnerable because of illegal horn sharpening practices, implemented prior to each fight.
Breeders prepare the horns of their oxen with blade, glass, or traditional sharpening equipment to increase their ox’s chance of wounding the opposing animal.
Shankar Palker is a local cattle owner in Madhyachiwadi, Maharashtra. He strongly opposes ox fighting in his community, but his brothers and sons still attend the spectacle.
“I’m completely against it, we can’t have the animals fight just for our fun when their horns are sharpened for these kinds of events.”
“We shouldn’t be risking their lives… they fight and bleed just for our entertainment,” Mr Palker said.
Although weakened by the ban, ox fighting continues to operate, threatened only by state level authorities.
The fighting events thrive in tourist capital Goa and some of Mumbai’s outer suburbs, where gambling is a major component of the practice.
*Name has been altered to protect identity.[Ishaan Chande and Shankar Palker interviews conducted via translator.]