Most of you will have heard of cockfighting or even seen one on your travels in Indonesia. Some of you might think it a barbaric act of bloody violence, and others, fascinating. But, there are complexities [both religiously and symbolically] that are rarely understood by the average traveller to Bali and beyond.
Cockfighting is illegal in Indonesia. The powers-to-be in Jakarta banned it in 1981. However, the fights still go on in gangs and in the villages throughout Bali. It is without a doubt a male-orientated domain. There were weekly cockfights in Gang Ronta (the lane between Poppies Lane 1 & 2) in Bali, but it has now been closed. With regards to that situation, where the cockfighting was a weekly event, it is generally found that the authorities ‘turn a blind eye’ so to speak. Since I went to the cockfights there a few years ago I haven’t seen any fights. This doesn’t mean to say that they have vanished. Cockfighting is a very important part of Balinese culture.
Cockfights (Tajen) are in fact a religious offering. Sometimes they take place at temple festivals [but not in the temple itself] only after receiving permission from the Banjar [whose members are proud owners of fighting cocks themselves]. It is believed that the blood spilt during these fights appeases the evil spirits known as Bhuta and Kala, and this will ensure prosperity with a village crop yield – a good harvest.
There is one day when this blood-letting sport is very important and that is prior to Nyepi, the Day of Silence. In this case, any blood spilt on the ground actually purifies it making it like a kind of ‘hallowed turf’. This magnificent offering of purification is known as ‘Mecaru’. For those traveling to Bali this year, Nyepi is on March 19th.
Fighting cocks receive the best of attention from their owners. When I actually witnessed the preparation and care taken with these cocks, I compared it with that of a woman get the best of attention at a beauty salon!. The owner will bathe the cock, comb its feathers and train it constantly everyday, and even massage the bird. The protruding parts of a cock – the wattle, their long combs and lobes – are cut so as not to give the opposing cock an advantage of having something to grab onto.
Even their diet is carefully maintained. In Java I spoke to a proud owner of a bird that had killed 26 times and he told me that plenty of Jackfruit thickens the blood and stops serious bleeding. It also keeps them trim and lean. A fighting cock’s love life suffers though. The bird must be kept celibate to increase the frustration making it an angry opponent. The birds are kept in bell-shaped cages and you will often see them at the roadside as you go through villages. This enables the cock to become adjusted to heavy noise.
To attend a cockfight is to witness a mass hysteria of betting, friendly arguing, and organised pandemonium. The fighting area, or arena, is known as a ‘wantilan’. There are definite and ancient rules set down drawn from sacred lontar texts. These govern such matters as the classification of the fighting cocks, their colour and size, any betting disputes and of course the betting procedure and manners.
There are three important people who oversee a cockfight – a timekeeper who signals the beginning of the fight, a referee known as a ‘saya’, and a reputable judge known as a ‘juru dalam’ who has the final say in any matter. There is a fourth but his only duties are affixing the razor-sharp blades to only one spur of the cock at the rear and always the right one. This is tightly bound so as not to fall off. This carrier of armoury is known as a ‘pemasang taji’ and is a specialist at his trade [if you could call it that!].
The betting is aggressive and mostly done by coded signalling. Once the referee notices all the bets are seemingly settled, a ‘pemangku’ blesses the fight area, gives offerings to the evil spirits (Bhuta and Kala), and then pours rice wine onto the ground. It is then the owners of the fighting cocks crouch down and face each other with their fighting cocks in hand. The birds face each other and are physically teased and taunted by the other to cause as much aggression as possible. When the timekeeper hits the gong, the cocks are let lose and the fight begins. The two cocks leap at each other, each attempting to strike the first blow with a blade, feathers fly and ruffs flare, and it is only a matter of time before one of the bird’s falls on its side with a nasty gash on its body.
Since there is usually a total of three rounds in each fight lasting around 15 seconds each, the fallen bird is picked up and then the scenario is repeated until it can fight no more or the owner concedes. The cock’s destiny is then the cooking pot. There have been times when the fallen bird is the eventual victor, but this rarely happens.
Such is the blood-letting ‘sport’ of cockfighting. If you ever get a chance to attend a cockfight, then don’t miss the opportunity. One thing is does do though is put you off eating chicken satay for a while!.