Goan Gladiators

“Baygin yo (come quick),” my friend Francis says. Parting this crowd, a few hundred strong, is a job for Moses. Though they were blissfully unaware of each other’s existence almost an hour ago, today’s belligerents, Nigru (because he’s black, zero points for political correctness) and Deus are about to go hoof to hoof as part of a dhirio or bullfight.
No matadors here; the mixed crowd of farmers, fishermen, and drunks (the superset) is here for gratuitous, bloody, bull-on-bull action.


In the absence of a bell, the organiser’s gruff voice booms and on cue, they charge and head butt. And repeat. Then rinse – the two prize fighters are periodically doused in buckets of cold, muddy water from the rice paddy next door.

When it looks like Deus is losing steam, his trainer jumps in and heaves with all his might. It’s hard work, trying to push a nearly 300-kilo bull back into a fight.

Deus backs up a little and then goes full tilt, almost knocking Nigru off balance. But Nigru is a seasoned veteran of Goa’s illegal, bullfight scene. He’s not giving up easy. His filed-down horn misses an overeager spectator by inches. The foolish bastard grins at cheating death – happily, crowd-thinking is sharper than his, and clammy hands pull him back. Human deaths at a bullfight could blow the lid off this money-spinning gig.

Francis’s stake for the day is 50K – that’s a day’s take from the bar he owns. Unlike one of the contenders today, he’s not going to be entirely wiped out, but the day is coming when his epitaph will read, “Recovering alcoholic, dive bar owner, degenerate gambler, and friend.”

He’s slugging on some tonic, some lime, and something else, so I ask why he does it. Why wager, why waste a day’s take on 90 minutes of some bullfight? He says it’s all that “poor fishermen” like him have got – also, the women around these parts aren’t that hot, so what else is there to blow a wad on? The real story, which I get when I snort at this bullshit, is that betting big money is what rich people do. Throwing your cash around, so poor fisherfolks know you’re a rich fisher fucker is a game as old as the dhirio.


As the fight goes on, people clamour, drinks and money change hands, and more paddy water is dunked on the competitors. There is a momentary lull when Deus again wants to tuck tail and run, which could mean an instant win for Nigru.

But in answer to the collective prayer of Deus’s entourage, he suddenly goes at it like a bat outta hell, right horn moving effortlessly through Nigru’s left flank. Out spews scarlet blood, the smell, grassy and mineral. Shit just got real.

Unlike Francis, some people are here simply to watch two bulls fight, and hopefully kill each other. Somewhere embedded deep in the human psyche, blood sport summons up something primitive. It’s a drug for the most jaded. It’s what gets Mahesh’s freak on.

Mahesh is a housekeeping attendant at a three-star hotel in Goa. Hailing from Jharkhand, Mahesh has been picking up after people for nearly 20 years now. He goes home only for a few weeks each year. With no family and zero responsibilities, Mahesh is an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler.

From cards, to matka (modko in Goa) to bullfighting, Mahesh wagers his hard-earned money on it all. Everything from roosters to dogs and even the occasional goat fight, was all the local entertainment back home, and so this is a reminder of bygone days, he says. When he was a kid and even now, the thrill of seeing two animals fight to death, gets his juices flowing — it’s that visceral.


The wounded bull Nigru, attempts one final charge but Deus now has the upper hoof. This time his left horn goes through the soft flesh between Nigru’s ribs and that’s it. The erstwhile proud victor and progenitor of a whole line of Nigrus of various ages and in various stages of training, lies bloodied and bruised. Camp Deus cheers with drunken gusto, as Nigru visibly struggles for breath.

The fight’s done. Francis settles up his debt, and Deus does a victory lap. Amid the frantic cheering and the furtive slinking, a small army descends on the field to check the extent of Nigru’s injuries. No qualified vets here, but these men know what needs to be done. They get on with it, and once Nigru has stilled, carry his carcass home.

Let’s take a look at the people who manufacture and peddle this narcotic, the so-called trainers and owners. It’s common to see bulls walked down the beaches of Goa. Before the advent of bullfighting culture, they ploughed fields. The only time they went head to head was after harvest season, when with nothing else to do, neighbours would pit bulls out of sheer boredom. But the bulls were treated reverently, and even when their lives ended, either naturally or in a fight, the funerals were a spectacle by themselves.

Then came the 1996 ban.

By this time, Goan tourism had taken off, and these bulls became commodities. Nobody really cared back then if anything happened to them. Times and venues were kept on the down low, communicated to slavering spectators at the absolute last minute. When local bulls were deemed too tame to entertain, hybrid bulls – bred to be stronger, bigger, and meaner – were sought from neighbouring states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The in-house old-school breeding was a low-overheads operation, but the hybrids inflated the price tags from ₹60,000 to ₹1,50,000. Feeding a bull and keeping him in combat-ready conditions costs about ₹15,000 a month. The top prize now runs from a few thousand to a lakh, sometimes more depending on the scale of the promotion. Plus, the bull owners get paid a fee for showing up.


Fights today, draw in crowds ranging anywhere between 200 and 500 people. Larger fights held on important days, draw in even larger crowds. The organisers recover their investment, which includes the winner’s purse, imported scotch, women, and the usual roster of bribes, by charging an entry fee. One such event, held the Easter before last was priced at a not inconsiderable ₹500 rupees a head.

So the government woke up in late 2015 and saw the ₹₹ and decided they wanted to legalise dhirio. A formal body called the All Goa Bull Owners Association, under whose aegis the fights were conducted before 1996, is leading the charge.

Government intervention may one day turn this sport into something akin to the ICL. You might just be seated in a brightly lit stadium with a hundred other so-called dhirio fans. Francis won’t be there because it’s no fun being a biggish fish in a much bigger pond. Mahesh won’t be there, because he can’t pay for the popcorn. And when it’s all over, you’ll quietly file out of the stadium, having watched government-sanctioned violence brought to you by {insert a major MNC here}.

I’d take the gritty, real, hands on bloodsport over some sanitised dog-and-pony show any day. I know what I’d put my money on this haphazardly coordinated dance of death, from the frontlines, with the roar of the crowd, the sound of repeated head butts and the smell of blood. I’d rather live on the edge, with fools and drunks for that brief moment in time, rather than become a mute spectator watching from the sidelines.

Viva de Goa, land of drunks, drugs, and the dhirio.