Ever since Earnest Hemmingway wrote the Spanish town of Pamplona, the running of the bulls ritual there has been an international symbol of masculine courage. Participants, historically all men, but in recent years including a few women, line up in one of Pamplona’s narrow streets, in front of a dozen bulls. When the bulls are released, the men run away, trying not to get hurt.
In the city of Ujjain, in north central India, the running of the bulls works a little differently. Men line themselves up along a street in front of a group of bulls. In Ujjain, however, the men don’t run away. They lie down, and allow the bulls to walk or run right over them.
The purpose of the Ujjain ritual is different as well. Whereas the participants in Pamplona are seeking to create a display of their physical and mental toughness, the people participating in the bull ritual in Ujjain are seeking forgiveness through submission. Instead of running away from the bulls, they wait for them.
Ujjain is a holy site for Hindus, home to the Mahakaleshwar temple and host of a Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. (The next Kumbh Mela in Ujjain will take place in July of 2016.) Tradition has it that the divinity Shiva resides in Ujjain, and the bull ritual is related to him. Shiva is traditionally depicted as riding upon a sacred bull named Namdi. Bulls are thus regarded as representations of the power of Shiva. To be trod upon by a bull is to demonstrate submission to Shiva.
We’ve all heard that Hindus don’t eat the meat of cattle, which they regard as sacred. The symbol of the bull is an ancient one in Ujjain in particular, and can be seen on very old coins from the area. However, not everyone in Ujjain is gentle to the bulls there. As in Pamplona, there are bull fights in Ujjain. Unlike the Spanish bullfights, however, the Ujjain bullfights feature two bulls fighting against each other. No human enters the fray.