Of sacrifice, noble death & camaraderie:a Balinese Cockfight experience
Of Matrimony & Death
Up a long road lined on either side by endless rows of a few hundred motorcycles, we walk behind our fixer along Bali’s famed Echo Beach. Along the way, we pass a lush, green lawn where a wedding ceremony is being set up as we begin our day, for the next eight hours will be filled by men, cocks and death.
We come to a sort of checkpoint as motorcycles zip noisily past us in either direction, some momentarily stopping for their riders to greet our fixer as wicker baskets hang by the side. They rev off again, but not before a rooster crows from the basket. It’s an organised chaos as more bikers find empty spaces to park their transport.
And just like trying to get into a club, the tiket masuk, or entrance fee, is 20,000 rupiah (US$1.70), money that will be used for the temple (otherwise known as pura) and its people.
But we’re exempt from paying. Our fixer, Gede Kusrendra, one of Canggu’s district heads who, with his burly build looks more like a member of a motorcycle gang with his aviators and Harley Davidson T-shirt, speaks to the person manning the counter, who greets him with a half bow, palms together in respect.
We journey up the road, and a trance-like, rhythmic noise in the closing distance grows louder as we approach a collective chant of gasol and cok that goes on for about a minute, almost like a prayer. We approach a group of men sitting under a bower in front of a pura (a Balinese Hindu temple), roosters on their laps or cradled in their arms. People greet the elders as they proceed to the wantilan (the arena) for a day of sacrifice, betting and male bonding.
Amid the din, the crows of roosters continue in the background.
“Why are they filming, who are they?” one of the men asks our fixer, inquisitively, eyebrows cocked to a sharp frown which sets off an unwelcoming air of suspicion for us.
"Here don’t take pictures. And don’t take pictures of the money,” Gede tells us, quietly.
"Don't speak Bahasa, speak in English. People might think you're government or polisi here undercover," he adds. “Just say you’re Singaporean.”
Our fixer bows to greet one of the men asking about us and tells them that we’re a group of journalists and photographers from a Singapore.
“They are here for their magazine to do a story about cockfighting.”
The stern faces cease their crease and soften up. Some stand up and walk towards us, suddenly smiling.
We breathe a sigh of relief; our shoulders lose their strain. Grossly outnumbered by hundreds of seasoned natives, not to mention the countless fighting cocks glaring at us through the weaves of their kisau prisons, we knew the odds in any altercation, to put it lightly, weren't exactly in our favour.
"Come, see my cock,"
as he shoves it in our cameras.
"Now, you can start filming," our fixer says, smiling.
Of Food, Blood & Manhood
The scents in the air play tricks with the olfactory senses, thick with the smells of chicken dung and a glorious aroma of food. If ever there was a smorgasbord of local delicacies in one sitting, then this is it as we approach the wantilan. There’s a huge pig roasting on a spit (babi guling anyone?), curry and gravies are being cooked, vegetables are being blanched, rice is being boiled, nasi lawar is being served, sate (skewed meat on sticks) is being barbecued, drinks are being served, and Indonesia’s ubiquitous teh botol is being drunk . Amid the food fare, blood is being spilt, and money is being won and lost as the chants of gasol and cok continue from the arena.
We’re here, by invitation of Gede, an old friend I hadn’t seen in eight years, to experience the ritual of tajen, or cockfighting.
We weren’t sure what to make out of it, and no amount of research or reading really prepared us for what it would be like. But we took our video cameras and photographs anyway and winged it, for all we had in our knowledge was that the sport, that we got to know as children from stories when our parents and our parents’ parents reminisced about the colonial days in Asia, was one that waddled in a Venn diagram made up of religion, taboos and culture.
It’s a Balinese tradition tied to the island’s interpretation of Hinduism. It is also, undoubtedly, one of its more violent cultural and religious practices, mostly at the receiving end of criticism by animal rights activists. It has also in recent months after our return from covering this story in May 2014 been covered by travel blogs and magazine reports as this once secretive affair (it still is to a varying degree) off the beaten track of a Balinese holiday itinerary becomes a subject of journalistic features, academic study and the odd voyeuristic tourist’s blog posting.
But it’s also a mostly unchanged yet outlawed tradition of noble sacrifice, masculinity, betting, temple funding and of course, community building.
This day, we find ourselves documenting one of Asia’s oldest sports, folklore we heard from our parents and our parents’ parents of their experiences of a cockfight in Asia’s colonial days.
"In cockfighting there is not only cockfighting. There are food, there are people talking about life, people are eating together and sharing time. People are communicating. There is a social life between them and people can feel better for sharing time," Gede says as we walk and meet people.
At this wantilan, we’re at one of three possible types of cockfights, each one distinct from the other in terms of size, or whether the fight taking place is a ceremonial cockfight embedded in Balinese Hindu worship.
The tabuh rah, a temple practice of “spreading blood”, is usually “officially” sanctioned and organised by a pura, therefore circumventing the brazen illegality of it. Tabuh rah are organised and sanctioned by the temple “every six months”, according to Gede, as part of its sacrificial practice, whereby to appease the spirits and gods, blood will have to be spilled in the course of a few scheduled cockfights over three days that will take place as part of a spiritual battle of bhuta kala (the malicious spirits) and the good spirits.
Then there’s that vague and very grey area where we find ourselves – the tajen, which treads the thin line between temple-approved cockfighting and an “illegal” secular cockfighting where betting (and police payoffs) are de rigueur. For, after all, we are next to a pura and often, during the odd police check or query, its vicinity to the temple (though not actually on temple grounds, according to Gede) is often the best alibi of why the sport is taking place. Here at a tajen is where betting usually takes place amid dozens of cockfights over a few hours, and a tajen can take place almost every weekend.
Beyond that, there is another secular type of cockfight known as branangan; just like the tajen but usually a smaller series of matches of a more clandestine nature which take place in a smaller wantilan in the middle of or behind a village, a safe distance from the public and main roads.
There will be Blood
We’re fortunate to be let in to experience a tajen, and later in the day, to a branangan. It’s almost a community fair with a grassroots feel, though that interpretation is the simplest a foreigner like me can think of.
"Don’t film inside yet. People not used to you, so wait,” warns Gede, as our presence and our bags of cameras and film equipment elicit curious and wary stares.
“Slowly first. Wait I introduce you."
Gede beckons me to follow him, for I’m the one with the video camera, while my two colleagues, Danial and Dyn, hang by the buffet table and await instructions to enter the wantilan. We laugh at the idea of them, two Muslim boys, hanging by a roasting pig. Then it's back to work. They snap photos of the coincidental food fair that is going on, of men walking in and out with their kisau, and of a community coming alive.
As we walk up to the wantilan, I tell Gede that I am surprised at the amount of people rushing around the place.
"The biggest crowd I’ve seen in Ubud. There are so many people there. Big crowd. Around 5,000 people in the crowd. Very big. Crazy. Like a stadium, full," says Gede.
"They even have brokers to help people bet. 'How much you want to bet? Two million? Okay, I bet for you.’ It’s like stock market, but stock market is gambling too, no?'"
The gong of a gamelan goes off and the cacophony dies down, and the very weird, sudden calmness is interjected with collective burst of cheers as we walk behind a metal scaffolding of stairs populated with feet.
I begin filming, surreptitiously of course and clumsily, I lose Gede on the perimeter of the arena as throngs of men stand around, or walk and run by. It’s chockablock with raging masculinity dressed in all sorts of fashion making their way in, out and around the wantilan.
Cockfighting arenas can vary in size, some, according to Gede, accommodating thousands, while some are the size of a school sports stadium, and others, like the one we’re in, are about the size of a small bungalow, roughly measuring 10 sq m.
Then, there is silence, a gong and a louder cheer to mark the end of the spectacle these few hundred men have come to see on a Saturday afternoon. The tiers begin to empty and the crowd seems to make their way down. An intermission of sorts.
There are at least 500 people in this particular arena, many standing precariously on tiered metal podiums, each one trying to get a better view of the action happening in the ring. It’s a crazy mess of noise, blood and overcrowding, and it is overwhelming to all the senses. Certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Kisau are being brought in and lined up, some being taken away as blood drips from them, containing the obvious losers making their way home to recuperate. But there’s order in that chaos. The seemingly random lineup of cocks in the kisau is actually a ‘waiting area’, like MMA fighters in their dressing room anticipating their match in the arena. There’s a gladiatorial feel in the air as food and drinks, snacks and food are being served by women as cheers, taunts, oohs and ahhs erupt in unison, while lifeless, limbless and bleeding cocks are being carried out of the wantilan.
There’s only one narrow way in and our of the dirt-packed ring, and the trail of blood act as directional signs telling me the potential fateful way in and the inevitable fatal way out.
And that’s how I find Gede.
I wait by the side of the entrance as men push and brush past me, some staring at me and my video camera, others smiling, some others asking me questions wanting to know where I’m from. I mistakingly reply in Bahasa forgetting that I’m supposed to be a foreigner, and begin a futile segue to say I can’t speak much Bahasa, stupidly saying that in Bahasa, of course, before switching to English that I’m Singaporean.
It’s like pretending you don’t speak English by saying you don’t speak English, in English. But the men take no notice and smile anyway before I hear Gede calling my name and beckoning me into the wantilan. There’s a break in between a series of fights at the moment, and as I enter the ring for the first time, it feels disconcerting. I look at the tiers and rows of four sides bursting at the barrier with men.
So many men, like a tribal, raucous cult of bettors, pilgrims, villagers, farmers, taxi drivers, business owners and the lot. Men from all walks of life screaming and betting and praying for their favourite cock. We’re at the heart of blokedom.
I stand in the ring, pockmarked with caking blood and torn feathers like bullet holes that remind us of a town’s war-torn history, a scene of death, gore and a good fight.
I meet Gede at what is the very beginning of this next cockfight, and he is holding a beautiful leather case with a red velvet lining and flippable compartments, similar to a case a dartsman might use to hold his darts, or a savvy business traveller man might use to hold his grooming necessities. Instead, each flip reveals a singular vicious-looking blade, about the size of a scalpel and shaped like a miniature samurai sword.
The blades are called taji, and can sometimes be owned and sometimes be rented for a fee.
Gede has been given the honour of tying the taji on a friend’s cock, a calm and regal looking fighter that in a few moments will enter into a fight to the death. Tying the taji is a complicated process based on varying factors to ensure a fair fight takes place. The position of the taji will differ to give the smaller and sometimes less strong cock with the handicap a fair advantage against a mightier opponent.
"When you decide on the type of cock, the position of the taji can be different depending on your deal with your opponent," says Gede.
"The red string called belulang," he adds as he wraps the thread with lightning fast speed, up and over, round and round the metatarsus and spur, repeating the process like a trainer wrapping his boxer’s wrist. The colour of the belulang can differ from tajen to tajen but mostly, it is red. When done, Gede secures it with a Hansaplas band-aid.
"Usually they use this at the doctor," Gede says, laughing, "but not today."
"This is also for the protection of the string, so the blade doesn’t fall off. Now I am only tying the knife and I’m going to give it to this guy. He will be with the cock during the fight," Gede adds.
Men comparing cocks… Literally
Gede checks the firmness of the taji and hands it over to the pekembar who for laughs, starts to do a dance with the cock in his care for my camera, inciting the laughter of the spectators around us in the wantilan. He then finishes his act and joins a group of about 10 men squatting in a circle, fellow pekembar who begin the process of matching cocks and finding rivals in a process known as mebong-bong.
I observe them as they squat in between match sets and pass the cocks in the care around rapidly, determining various factors such as the size and weight of their opponent’s cock. Throughout the mebong-bong, the pekembar, one as young as 12 and still learning the ropes, antagonise each other’s cocks, plucking at the feathers, irritatingly squeezing their bodies and pushing them face to face in a bid to piss them off.
"Are the pekembar the owners?" I ask Gede after observing them for some time. “No, they are like the cock managers. The owners pay them to fight their cock,” he says.
I never ask how the pekembar get the jobs to take the owner’s cock (and the life of the cock) into their care, but I do learn that they are indeed the most interesting players in this sport of cockfighting.
Whether the cock in their care wins or not, they will be paid by the owner based on their agreement – no more, no less for a win or a loss.
Concurrently, they exchange birds and determine if the match-up is fair, for no two cocks are the same. They judge the size of rival cocks and psyche up the animals in their care to produce a worthy fight and a worthier opponent for that inevitable, noble death.
Of Blood & Honesty
For all its chaos, blokedom, noise, illegality, spirituality and violence, a Balinese cockfight is one of the most honest experiences a man can witness.
Within the wantilan, there are dozens of people involved, and I feel bad to be adding to the numbers in the ring with my video camera and getting in the way. After the mebong-bong, the pekembar gather to the corner of the ring, near the entrance, holding their cocks as the next fight is set to begin.
In the middle of the ring, two men on either side begin walking the perimeter holding up their arms
As the podiums begin to fill to the brim and as the din grows as hundreds anticipate the next set, the pekembar are decided on the upcoming sets.
The fight will soon begin.
Bettors, Judges & The Gladiators
Cocks obviously differ from colour and size, but to the untrained eye, it is rather tough to grasp how the pekembar have come to understand the nuances of a cock’s physique and personality for that matter, and it’s unfathomable how the bettors and punters in the stands can tell which cock they shall bet on, for that in itself is is a highly complicated affair.
Unleashing the cocks
For newcomers like us covering the event this day, it is almost foreign to us how accountability is maintained amid the cacophony, the many cocks waiting for their fight, the pekembar readying the cocks and the masses of people.
Raising a cock
Striding into the spotlight, two cock handlers place their roosters in the pit facing each other, prodding, pulling and, well, provoking the birds to rile them up for their big fight. As the birds get increasingly riled up, so does the crowd. The jaunts and cheers crescendo into a booming chant, every man perched on the edge of their seats, some still placing their bets in the background. Feathers ruffled and hackles raised, the cocks are primed and ready to fight - to the death.
Throwing the roosters into the ring, the handlers take their leave. Standing proudly on opposite ends of each other, the roosters remain motionless for a second. Nothing happens. The crowd’s cheers are halted. Then one cock, a regal red-feathered specimen, stalks forward. Heads lowered menacingly as a warning to each other, the two birds suddenly barrel towards each other and the crowd roars in approval. The fight begins.
The Fight Continues
In a flurry of feathers, dirt and squawks, the roosters go fiercely at each other, pecking and clawing violently, unwittingly stabbing each other with the blades tied to their legs. Within minutes, the glorious white-feathered cock is limping and feathers on both birds are matted in blood. The white cock staggers away but is chased down by its opponent. At this point, the handlers step in and pick up their birds. But the fight isn’t over yet. They release the roosters again to give them another go. The red rooster strikes. Its adversary limps away and collapses despondently in a corner. Both disappointed and triumphant faces are dotted in the crowd. We have a winner.
A triumphant handler lifts the victor up and hauls him away gleefully. Winnings are collected, debts are paid. The winning rooster lives to fight another day, and when he’s won enough, he gets to retire in comfort and father new fighters. Losers, however, face the unlucky fate of being plucked and cooked, transforming them from food for entertainment into just, well, food.
The End Bits
For most tourists, these Balinese cockfights may be a little hard to stomach (much like the way we felt when offered a plate of one of the losing roosters). It’s undoubtedly a brutal, man’s man’s world, with plenty of blood, testosterone and wagers thrown into the mix. But there’s also an air of camaraderie, honesty and spirit that hangs above the wantilan.
As Clifford Geertz puts it so eloquently in his iconic essay ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’: “For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”
Balinese cockfighting is not about the savagery of setting cocks against each other, the moral quandary of gambling, or the ethical dispute of using beasts for sport. The intricacies of the ritual, from tying on the taji, the complicated operations of betting and winning, to the respectful handling of the bettors and roosters, thrusts you into the realisation that it is so much more than that.
It is a rite of passage into manhood, a commentary on the primal instincts of man and beast, a bonding ritual for Balinese men, an offering to the Gods, a tribute to an age-old tradition - all in all, a powerful symbol of the rich and deeply sacred roots and culture of the Balinese in an age where history and tradition are in constant endangerment of being wiped out.
Just like those of the magnificent roosters that proudly give their lives to the sport, the spirit of Balinese culture lives on in these weekly rituals. The history of violence lives on, and along with it, the history and spirit of Bali.