To Judge Or Not To Judge – Bullfight In Spain

August 1998

I was sitting on my chair, slouching forward with one hand on the buzzer, waiting for the quizmaster to pop the next question. Within a few microseconds of the question being asked, I pressed the buzzer and answered with excitement – “Bullfighting!”. Of course, the question that sealed my victory was to identify the national sport of Spain. Later that evening, as I slumped into the bed, I asked myself – “What’s a bullfight really like? Would it be like cricket or maybe more fun? Why is it a ‘sport’ and not an ‘art’ form?”

April 2016

In a couple of weeks, I was going to tie the knot to this amazing lady who I’d fallen in love with. Our decision to travel to Spain for our ‘honeymoon’ was a no-brainer as we’d always been fascinated by the country and its unique culture – flamenco, ferias, ham, and of course bullfighting. With great curiosity, I googled – “Bullfight in Spain in May”. Pop came the answer – “San Isidro Festival”. In a matter of few minutes, the tickets were reserved to watch a bullfight live in one of the world’s most popular arenas – Plaza De Toros – in Madrid.  

Bullfight Ring In Madrid - Plaza De Toros
The Plaza De Toros in Madrid is one of Spain’s most iconic buildings

May 2016

Growing up in Kerala and having had my share of beef fry for dinner every second day of my adult life, I’ve been largely indifferent to animals. In fact, my twitter profile read “Carnivore” for the longest time. Watching a live bullfight, hence, wasn’t an idea that freaked me out. As a sports buff, I always looked at it as a nation’s most loved sport and I was brimming with excitement when we arrived at the arena. Divya, on the other hand, was somehow still in la-la-land completely oblivious to what the idea of the sport really is. Maybe, she was still reeling from the wedding shenanigans.

The gladiatorial style arena getting prepared for the bullfight
The gladiatorial style arena getting prepared for the bullfight

Stage 1 – The Weakening

We found our seats in the jam-packed arena, clicking pictures like a honeymooning couple and munching on roasted peanuts. Soon, the music began to play and out came the parade introducing the matadors and their cuadrillas (crew of horsemen and supporters). The gates opened and in came the first bull – a rather puny one weighing about 470 kgs, around the minimum weight of a fighting bull. My heart began to race with excitement and a tinge of uncertainty. I was worried for the young matadors – some of whom were just 18. I squeezed Divya’s hands to control myself and we exchanged a “Neh, nobody is going to die ‘course” look.

As the scene began to unfurl, we discovered a startling truth. This wasn’t a matador v/s bull fight. It was an army of matadors and cuadrillas against a lone, estranged bull. The armed men on the horsebacks began to provoke the bull by calling at it while the cuadrillas waved their pink-hued capes to draw the bull towards them. Confused, the bull chose to go for the horse and charged at it fiercely. BAM! The first blow was landed and the bull was at the receiving end. The cuadrilla on the horse back had managed to stick the lance deep into the neck of the bull.

All the excitement I came in with suddenly wilted away. My worries for the matador had turned into sympathy for the bull. If this was a sport, it was an unfair one. If ten armed people were to fight a bull, the result is just a formality. As more and more blows were landed on the bull by the horsemen, I looked around in the hope of seeing many more un-approving faces. Much to my surprise, I found company only in Divya whose heart had already sunk. The rest of the crowd cheered on with excitement as I sat there stunned. We felt alienated. Were we missing something? Or maybe, we were just new to this?

Stage 2 – The Tease

Divya had shrunk into a ball unable to comprehend the brutality. She was murmuring abuses in her muted voice at the cuadrillas. The bull had lost a tonne of blood by then and seemed to have no energy left to burn. But, the weakening process was only at the beginning. There were a group of matadors, now on foot, holding wooden sticks with a bladed-end. Though it seemed like the bull wanted no further role, the matadors continued to provoke. With one swift movement, it charged again at one of them. BAM BAM! This time, it had taken two mighty blows. The sticks were now jutting out of the bull’s back and the bull was bathing in blood. BAM BAM BAM BAM! It landed four further blows in the next minute.

Half a tonne animal up against four members of a smarter species – bullfight isn’t the most ‘equal’ sport out there

My mind collapsed. Feeling helpless, I squished Divya’s arms and held on to her closely. One part of me wanted to storm out but the other wanted to go through with this, as I didn’t want to disrespect the local traditions. The crowd was cheering on for the main matador to now come out and showcase his ‘art’. Deep inside, I had begun cheering for the bull instead.

Stage 3 – The End

Finally, the matador came out all alone. He swirled his red cape, danced around the arena, and called the bull out to him. With the remaining ounce of energy, it charged at him only to be fooled by his last minute retreat. The show continued with each time the matador pulling out as late as possible. And then, it happened – the bull managed to bring down the matador with a body blow. He lay on the ground unable to move. The arena had fallen silent. The cuadrillas were now out to divert bull’s attention elsewhere till the matador was carried away.

I was feeling guilty now, for having cheered for the bull. After all, the matador was a young kid born into a family where bullfight has been practiced for generations. He had spent all his childhood learning the tricks of the trade and here he was in his first bullfight laying flat on the floor. I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for, who to side with.

A few minutes later, the matador had managed to get back on his feet. He came back into the ring, a sign of extreme bravery, to complete the coup. He pranced around making the bull weaker and weaker. 45 minutes into the show, the bull kneeled down. The matador had won.

Sigh. I was relieved. At least, nobody had to die. But wait, the matador was now walking towards the bull with a sword. BAMMMMM! It was all over. With one groan, the bull had died. My hands were in my face and the crowd were on their feet. White cloth was being waved and the matador was walking around the arena bathing in adulation. Divya and I stood up too, half in tears, with a gazillion mixed thoughts.  

A standing ovation for the bull, maybe? Well, it was not to be. The bull was dragged through the ground and taken out of the ring. Later that evening, its tail was cut off and handed over to the matador as a mark of respect. We went through with two more fights, each time hoping for a different result. The bull died every time, inevitably. We were done. We quietly walked out, unsure and clueless, struggling to come to terms with all that we’d witnessed.

As a traveller, it is often hard to draw a line between immersing in a culture and judging it. Though we judged bullfighting as we sat through it, we also understood how deep rooted it is in the Spanish culture. We might never go back to watching it again but we do not regret having made the attempt. Wherever you may travel next, immerse yourself in the law of the land. It’ll open your mind up, like nothing else can.

What about you? Have you ever experienced a cultural activity in a foreign land that deeply disturbed you? 

4 thoughts on “To Judge Or Not To Judge – Bullfight In Spain

  1. I’ve never been to a bullfight but I’ve watched them on TV in Spain, and I came to much the same conclusion as you. In general I would agree that it’s important to respect cultural practices that differ from our own, but there are certain things that I think would be better consigned to the dustbin of history, and bullfighting is one of them.

    Cultures can and do evolve – the Romans used to crowd into stadiums to watch people fight to the death, but I don’t think you’d find many modern day Italians lamenting the disappearance of this particular cultural practice!

    1. Tom,

      You make very valuable points. Over time, traditions across the world have changed/ evolved for the good. Sati in India is another example of the same.Guess the world (and Spain, specifically!) can do without a sport like bullfight. Hope rest of Spain follows in the footsteps of Catalonia and puts an end to it.

  2. yeah, ambivalence running wild here. Culture versus perceived cruelty in the eyes of foreigners. Bulls do have a pretty good life…up until their day in the ring. there’s no good answer…

    I have been to bullfights in both Spain and Mexico. It is a marvelous spectacle best viewed from the shady side of the arena. But I don’t like the sight of blood.

    I was in Kerala last year! And posted a couple stories from Kovala to Cochin! Loved it!

    1. We’re curious to know whether locals conceive it as cruelty too. We met a bunch of people within Spain who resonated with our thoughts. Maybe, it will all be better if we all enjoy this a bit lesser?

      Vikas is from Kerala and we’re really glad you enjoyed your time in this part of the world. No bullfighting in Kerala, thankfully 😉

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