Negara Buffalo Races – The crowd erupted into a loud roar as one of the chariots slid off the track trying to round the corner, taking a risk with balance and speed to gain valuable ground. It is common for accidents to occur on these corners, so if you position yourself at these sharp bends, you almost become part of the race, feeling the thrill, intensity and excitement, as the race bursts into life around you.
The start position of each buffalo is crucial to claiming victory in a buffalo race. Each animal is spaced at a five-meter distance around the circular four-kilometer track. If the lead buffalo can finish five meters or more in front of the finish line, he will claim the rich bounty awaiting him. The riders need skill, speed and control, and an armor of bravery, to compete and ride in these great events. The mastery these fine riders have over their buffalo is simply magnificent to behold.
The buffalo themselves are very well cared for and are paraded in a unique fashion show before the start of the race. Adorned in bright, colorful ribbons and sashes each animal represents the different villages of the Jembrana regency.
When you plan a trip to West Bali in November, you can witness the major buffalo racing event – The Jembrana Cup (known as The Governor’s Cup), held in Negara. The other major event well worth seeing is the regents Cup, also held in Negara. This is generally held in August. These two events are timed to coincide with rice harvesting.
Buffalo racing is known locally as Mekepung and is taken very seriously in this region and is an intregal part of the local culture. The racing buffalos are called kerbau pepadu in the local Balinese language. In the weeks leading up to a major event, there is a buzz in the air and a feeling of excitement in the town, as every Sunday the buffalo riders practice at one of the seven circuits in the area honing their skills in preparation for the big day.
So, what is the big incentive for these riders? The lure of the first prize is one motivation – a healthy buffalo (worth thousands of dollars), plus several lesser (but very valuable) prizes up for grabs, but this is not the main driving force for the competitors. It is the opportunity to bring honor to their village, displaying their strength and masculinity returning home as victors.
The main town of Negara is based in a beautiful location, nestled between the mountainous Bali Barat National Park in the north and the Indian ocean to the South. Visiting Negara is very much like a journey into the Bali of thirty years ago.
historically, Jembrana attracted the seafaring Bugis people who settled in the area back in the 1600’s, coming from Java, Madura and Sulawesi.They have remained Muslim, and in fact there is one mosque to every five hindu temples in Jembrana. Prancak is well worth a visit and you can witness the Bugis boats returning at sunrise with the previous night’s catch. The sight of hundreds of these brightly colored 10-meter long boats emerging out of the foggy morning resembling Viking ships is another wonder of this area. From the shore you can hear the Bugis fisherman singing and laughing, happy with the previous night’s bounty and content that the Gods of the sea have treated them kindly.
Culturally, this area is one of the most interesting in Bali, with various art forms found nowhere else on the island. The most famous of which is the Gamelan Jegog. These bamboo instruments produce a very deep base sound that seems to rattle your bones as the players strike the keys with heavy mallets, in perfect unison accompanied by the delicate sound of a flute. When combined with the Jegog Dance (not performed anywhere else in Bali),watching the beautiful woman dressed in bright yellow silk, moving in perfect unison to the deep ancient traditional sounds, you will soon realize why a visit to this part of Bali is well worth the effort.
The buffalo races of Jembrana, colorfully clad Bugis schooners lining the shore, the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the unique dance and music of West Bali make this a cultural journey that will enthrall, intrigue and delight you.
Text and Photos by David Metcalf