I witnessed my first cockfight in Bali, in a small village just outside Ubud. I stumbled upon it by chance when I was running, with a local sports club, on a Saturday afternoon. Our route took us through a temple complex in the middle of the jungle, where we came across a cockfight. Only men are allowed to watch this sport, so it was an unusual opportunity to see one first-hand.
It was a fascinating scene. Money was changing hands every sixty seconds and the feisty fighting cocks were all squawks and nervous screeches as they prepared to engage in battle – a battle that only lasted one minute. The atmosphere was chaotic amid the hype of frenzied men gambling and copious feathers flying left, right and center, accompanied by a chorus of roars from gamblers and onlookers alike.
Cockfights are only legally permitted at ritual ceremonies and are designed to purify and appease the spirits of the earth. The matches involve a set of complex rules. The rules dictate the length of the rounds, and the classification of the cocks by color, neck ruff and body shape. Cockfighting not only takes place in Bali but also in many countries around the world including Mexico, Philippines, Cuba and even Wales, UK.
Caring for the Fighting Cocks
Cockfighting is far from the cruel and bloodthirsty sport that many think. The cocks are fed a diet of grains, meat, and jackfruit. This specific diet has been passed down through the centuries and is proven to make them strong. In addition, owners groom the birds for hours, handle them very gently, and bathe and train them every day. These birds have a longer life than normal and are highly valued. This contrasts with the fate of their siblings, who live a very short life cooped up in a cage. It takes around six weeks to fatten up these more unfortunate roosters, earmarked for sale in the food market. During this time many are fed a diet of artificial feed and growth hormones.
A cockfight involves the spilling of blood and a fight to the death. In preparation for a fight, the cocks have polished, razor-sharp metal claws known as Taji, attached to their leg. The fight itself starts with a loud gong, which provides the signal for the birds to fight. Viewers naturally keep well back as these fighting birds are suited-up and armed with razors. After the first contact, the two birds are separated, and after a series of rounds, the outcome is determined by a (hopefully) quick death.
There, in the middle of the jungle, I sat down and talked with one of the cockfighting bird owners, Pak Jaga, to learn a little more about this age-old Balinese tradition. Jaga told me he had been involved in the cockfighting business since he was 22 years old and was taught by his father in their local village. He was a busy man, also operating a small warung (shop) and working in his fields as a rice farmer. With a huge beam of happiness spreading across his face, he proudly told me, “I have six children ranging from 7 to 40 years. My children are from three different wives. Yes, I am a busy man.”
Jaga was quite a character, constantly accompanying his speech with winks and nods, and was very excited to tell me all about the business side of cockfighting. “As a seller, I typically sell my fighting cocks for Rp150,000 – 200,000 (USD$13 – 18),” he explained, “but sometimes a good looking fighting cock can fetch up to Rp 1, 000,000 (USD$80).”
Jaga went on to tell me how he studies the physical form and temperament of the cock at a young age and makes a decision then as to how it will perform as a fighter. He then purchases the ones that he thinks might make champions, and then looks after them for one year.
His goal is to sell five fighting cocks a month. He also helps out on cockfighting days with various activities, such as getting them ready for fighting and plucking the feathers from the losers so they can be sold for eating. “If I had more money,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I would buy merchandise to sell at the cock fights. That would be a real winner. Look at how many customers are here!”
He confessed he never seems to be ahead of the game and to sell merchandise he would need a start up investment of around Rp 2,000,000 (USD$180) to buy the stock. “I just dream about that,” he added.
It was a delight to meet Jaga, a very friendly and jovial character whose positive spirit really seemed to add to the atmosphere of this unique event.
Cockfights are staged at religious events as blood offerings to the earth spirits. Because of anti-gambling laws, gambling is frowned upon at religious cockfights. Illegal cockfights, with gambling being the main draw card, still take place in secret locations, although there are regular crackdowns by police.
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond. Please see www.travelwriter.ws
Follow on www.facebook.com/stephtravelwriter
David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Indonesia, Myanmar, India and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali. He supports education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.