New Delhi - India's top court on Tuesday stayed a government decision to allow a popular bull running festival to go ahead after animal rights activists challenged the move.
With just days to go before the start of the festival in southern Tamil Nadu state, the Supreme Court issued a temporary stay order on the central government's decision to reverse a 2014 ban.
The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) had filed a petition urging the court to reinstate the ban on the festival, in which bulls are let loose and young men compete to subdue them.
Activists say the sport is cruel and abusive. But it has a loyal local following and the court's decision sparked angry protests in Tamil Nadu, where preparations for the festival had already begun.
The court said it was issuing the stay order "as an interim measure", following an initial hearing in which the attorney general argued that the government had put safeguards in place for the animals.
He said the festival of Jallikattu, or "bull-taming", was an important part of local culture, where it marks the start of the annual winter harvest.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of a number of animal rights groups that backed the AWBI challenge, welcomed the court's decision.
"The Honourable Supreme Court's stay... is a partial victory for sensitive bulls, who will be spared cruelties such as being deliberately disoriented by being given substances like alcohol and having their tails painfully broken joint by joint and bitten for Jallikattu," said PETA India chief executive Poorva Joshipura in a statement.
Unlike in traditional Spanish bull-fighting, the aim is not to kill the animals.
But critics say they are fed liquor and have chilli powder thrown into their eyes before they are released from a holding pen and chased by revellers.
India's former government earlier ordered a ban in 2011, but it was not implemented until 2015 after the Supreme court had dismissed a slew of legal challenges.
The event was cancelled last year for the first time, but local political parties had lobbied the federal government to have the ban quashed - possibly with an eye on state elections later this year.
On Tuesday Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking that the festival be allowed to go ahead this year since all arrangements had already been put in place.
"On behalf of the people of Tamil Nadu I urge you to take immediate action in this regard," she said in the letter, according to PTI.
The harvest festival in Tamil Nadu will begin this Thursday.