The sleepy Goan village is stirred into a frenzy as the word on dhirio (bullfight) floats across it. Soon, excited crowds, consisting mostly of men and male children, are seen making their way to the grassy fields some distance away.
They cheer and let out battle cries with a hunger-for-a-fight in their eyes as two bull-owners thrust their raging bulls towards each other. Thus, begins a duel on which huge sums have been wagered.
The crowd swings forward, backward and sideways in rhythm with the movement of the horn-locked bulls. Buckets of water are splashed on the bovine gladiators, their sharpened horns locked in a tight Machiavellian grip and the air is thick with a menacing energy.
Here, the resilient compassion has given way to the compulsive lust for money in humans.
The crowd bays for blood of the bulls. A weird kind of animal spirit has possessed everyone on the ground, where the only things that matters is the bet laid on the game. All this is wrapped up in less than two hours, sometimes within 30 minutes. It erupts and dies off in a flicker.
The winners carry home their prizes and the animals, most of the time bruised and bloodied, are herded back to get them ready for the next fight.
If there is anything Goans are as passionate as they are about their beaches and siesta, its dhirio. Their love for this animal sport, which resembles a bullfight, cuts across religion and class.
Goans believe it ties them to their ‘culture and tradition’ – notwithstanding the gore and the gambling involved – and keeps a slice of the past alive. It’s one of the dichotomies of the Goan existence.
There is nothing that can deter them from indulging in this age-old game. Dhirio has been banned in Goa since 1997 after the High Court of Bombay at Goa passed a judgment against it and the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal filed by the Bull Owners’ Association declaring it to be in contravention of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (PCA) Act, 1960.
But these legal setbacks have done little to diminish their zeal for the sport. Bullfights continue to take place clandestinely, allegedly under the benign gaze of the police. The game enthusiasts have developed a mechanism and an ecosystem that operates smoothly without the animal activists getting a whiff of it.
Politicians have also put their might behind it and made legalisation of dhirio their top priority. In 2009, Francisco Sardinha, Member of Parliament from South Goa, while representing the people of Goa in the lower house had moved a private member’s bill (by a non-executive member who is not part of the cabinet) for the revocation of the ban on dhirio.
Of all the other issues, the Goan MP picked dhirio to be highlighted. It’s another matter the bill was “thrown out” of the Parliament.
More than a decade later, Sardinha continues to be a fierce advocator of dhirio. He wants two dhirio stadiums built – one in South Goa and another in North Goa. His argument: if the sport is legalised it can be better regularised by putting adequate safeguards and proper rules in place. Today, it’s an underground sport of Goa and therefore becomes difficult to police.
Many do not see cruelty to animals in dhirio. They compare it to a boxing match between boxers without gloves, where the winner emerges as a champion.
Some even refuse to call it bullfighting. For them, it is “bull-taming” as the bull is not killed at the end of game as it is done in bullfighting between the bulls and the matador in Spain.
The number of bulls killed in bullfights every year around the world is alarming. Human Society International puts it at 2.5 lakh bulls. In India, 104 men and 33 bulls have been killed since 2017 in bullfights.
The number of injuries during bullfights is higher at 2,000 men and 71 bulls. Countries like Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Italy and UK have banned the sport.
Last year, a Supreme Court bench decided to allow bullfights in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka by upholding the amendments made by the lawmakers of these states to the PCA Act, 1960.
This has given hope to dhirio advocates in Goa but the state legislature has still to make an earnest move in the direction of giving it a legal tag.
Even so, duels between bulls and furious betting on them have been occurring unabated every other day on the sly in the state. Early this week, a middle-aged participant was gored to death by a bull at a dhirio held in the Benaulim village.
The unfortunate incident has once again brought to the fore the dilemma of whether the authorities should go for total abolition of dhirio and let it function in the state’s underbelly or take a middle path of legalising it but with stringent regulations.
Amidst all the rhetoric on one of Goa’s favourite animal sports, a saying that rings very true is: ‘bulls do not win bullfights. People do’.