Thousands of supporters of Jallikattu, a bull-taming festival where the animals are forced to drink alcohol and chilli powder is rubbed into their eyes, have rallied in parts of southern India to demand the government lift a ban on the traditional event.

Protesters converged on Marina Beach on Thursday, a busy area of Chennai city, calling for the practice to continue, privately-run broadcaster NDTV reported.

Police said the protests, which had spread across Tamil Nadu state, were largely peaceful.

Authorities, however, ordered the closure of two dozen colleges in Chennai as crowds swelled at the main protest site.

"We are protesting against the ban and demand that it should be immediately lifted," Selva Kumar, a student leader at the protest, told the AFP news agency.

"We are here in support of preserving the culture of Tamils."

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India's Supreme Court outlawed Jallikattu last year after a plea by animal rights groups that argued the event is cruel.

Critics say organisers lace the bulls' feed with liquor to make them less steady on their feet and chuck chilli powder into their faces and eyes to throw them into a sudden frenzy as they are released from a holding pen.

The participants then try to control the bull by its horns or tail, in a race to subdue the bull within a specific time.

PETA, an animal rights group, has released footage it says shows bull farmers doping their animals before the event, but organisers of the festival insist the animals suffer no harm.

"This is an attack on our culture," said Manikanda Venkatesh, a student from Tamil Nadu.

"People who have never been to Tamil Nadu are telling us about about culture and calling it barbaric. The farmers treat these bulls like their children and no parent can be cruel to their child."

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Tensions have been escalating for the past week after hundreds of people were arrested for allegedly organising local Jallikattu contests in defiance of the court ban.

Several popular Tamil film stars have voiced their support for the demonstrators, as has India's leading spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin.

Opposition and ruling parties in the state have criticised the ban and want Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to have it overturned.

A government led by Modi's predecessor did order a ban in 2011 but it was effectively ignored until last year's Supreme Court ruling.

Tamil Nadu witnessed large scale protests by students in 1960s over the imposition of Hindi as the official language in the southern state, with the majority Dravidian community fiercely opposing it before the order was rolled back by the central government.

Source: News agencies