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Cockfighting in Indonesia

If cocks have been keeping you awake ever since you arrived in Indonesia, this is your chance to see them killing each other. In the past, the gambling connected with cockfighting frequently brought economic ruin to many families, a man addicted to the habit sometimes wagering a whole month's income on the outcome of a match. Cock-crazy rajas in the early part of this century lost whole fortunes, palaces, and even wives by playing the cocks.

Because of the gambling, the Dutch forbade the sport in 1926. They found it equally as difficult to suppress them as the provincial government does today. Given the fact that 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, a religion which prohibits gambling, it's no wonder that the central government in Jakarta banned public cockfights on Bali in 1981 to prevent moral decay and the squandering of valuable cash resources.

Though unofficial, unauthorized cockfights (tajen) are illegal, fighting is still allowed at religious events (tabuh rah). In essence, the cocks are sacrifices to the devil. Hungry evil spirits (bhuta and kala) are especially fond of the blood of fighting cocks because their temperaments are similar. The Balinese the blood offering satisfies the spirits and assures a good harvest. In these purification rites, called tabuh rah (pouring blood), cockfights are not only allowed, they're required. The fights usually coincide with temple ceremonies, and the village council must alert the police. Three to five rounds are allowed in which betting is legal; all other rounds and bets are illegal. If you're lucky enough to see a match at a temple, it may last for three days.

By charging admission, cockfighting is also a means by which a village raises money for road repairs or various festivals. Like a lottery, every male member of the banjar has to contribute a cock; he is fined if he doesn't. Ten to 25% of all winnings go to the banjar, the rest is contributed to the cost of the festival. Unrestricted cockfighting also takes place during the great purification offering of mecaru prior to the Day of Silence (Nyepi). It is believed that blood spilt over the impure earth will cleanse it. On this occasion, thousands of cocks fight and die all day long everywhere on Bali.

Fresh blood may also be needed to dedicate a new accommodation or tourist restaurant. In these cases, the Balinese don't even ask the police because they know they'll be denied permission. Some may try to pay the authorities with money or a carton of cigarettes to look the other way.

Social function of cock fighting

The atmosphere of cockfights is not bloodthirsty and warlike. It is ritualized, rechanneled violence where no one gets hurt (except the cocks)-like playing with fire and not getting burned. All the villagers know each other, and the procedure is well understood. Matches are governed by an unbelievably complex set of rules listed in sacred lontar books, dictating the length of rounds, the settlement of disputes, gambling etiquette, and the classification of cocks by color, body shape, neck ruff, and other characteristics. Winning bets are collected after each match, and the chief judge (juru dalem), a man of unsullied reputation, has the last word in all disputes.

No one congratulates the winner, sympathizes with the loser, argues or disputes the outcome. The fights move unsentimentally and dispassionately, each a self-contained world enclosed by raucous laughter and chatter. Predominantly a male-bonding event, there are few more graphic studies of Balinese values and behavior than cockfights. The drama, gesticulating, and hysteria of this nearly impenetrable crowd is fascinating to watch. Raffles wrote in his History of Java: "The Balinese are strangers to the vices of drunkenness, libertinism, and conjugal infidelity: their predominant passions are gaming and cockfighting. In these amusements, when at peace with their neighboring states, all the vehemence and energy of their character and spirit is called forth and exhausted." This is true today as much as it was when that observation was recorded in 1817.

The Balinese are amused at the attitude of Westerners who find their cockfights cruel. A rooster is just as dead in the cooking pot as it is on the ground of a cockfighting arena. In religious celebrations the losers provide food for festival banquets and many a prize rooster has found its way into a delicious curry dish.

Care and training

Fighting cocks are given loving care-regularly massaged, bathed, bounced on the ground, and trained every day. Their feathers, combs, earlobes, and wattles are trimmed so that none provide a beak-hold for the opponent bird. The owner prepares a diet of specially selected grains and a mixture of chopped, grilled meat, and jackfruit, which is believed to thicken the blood - preventing serious bleeding if injury results - and to make the bird lean and little subject to fatigue. Its sexual energies are directed only toward fighting, so the cock leads a celibate life except when breeding new fighters. The offspring of a champion cock are prized and considerably more expensive than those of less proven blood lines.

All over rural Bali special rock ledges are built outside homes and beside roads to hold bell-shaped cock cages. The cages are shifted about during the day to expose the cocks to the right proportions of light and shade, and so that they are amused by the passersby and do not get lonely. The exposure also accustoms them to the raucous street noise and activity of people so they aren't disturbed where it really counts-in the ring.

Pet, mascot, child, dream, income, the bird is carried around the courtyard and to the village warung or banjar clubhouse, taking as much attention as a new wife. Each is given a name, and in the Balinese language the word for cock has the same double meaning as it has in English, giving rise to the same stale locker-room jokes. The Indonesian word for cock (sabung) can also mean champion, warrior, or hero; scholars have even speculated that Balinese men look upon their fighting cocks as detachable, self-operating penises with a life of their own.

You'll see them with their birds, endlessly inspecting, stroking, and fondling their muscles, ruffling their feathers, pulling their combs, tenderly bathing them, letting them exercise, and pairing cocks for impromptu sparring without spurs. Young men are just as passionate about the sport as old men, but the extent of their enthusiasm depends on their environment. Youths in the countryside, where there are no TVs and discos, are naturally more into cockfighting than urban youth.

The arena

Since many cockfights are illegal, matches today are held in secret down back lanes of most villages and towns, usually in the mornings. Guards are posted to make sure participants are not discovered by the police. It's easy for visitors to jostle their way into the noisy, sweating circle, and usually no admission is charged. Though women may enter religious events where cockfights are held, you see only men at real cockfights. It is not a place where a woman likes to be seen-these birds are men's business only.

When police raid cockfights, there's a frenzied scramble to escape, a cat and mouse game in which everyone scatters in all directions. If caught, offenders are fined Rp2000 and may even be jailed for a night. Less risky are "private" cockfights which families stage right inside their living compounds to exorcise malevolent spirits. The Balinese also stage cricket fights but these matches are not easy to find.

Legal cockfights are held in an open shed or pavilion called a wantilan, usually outside the temple, measuring about 15 square meters, and surrounded by tiered seating. Cockfights are also staged in the banjst meeting hall, or simply in a flat, roped-off area enclosed by rough benches. Some cockfights even take place inside the temple itself, but this is rare. Whatever the venue, the courtyard is never swept before a cockfight.


An auspicious day must be decided on to hold a cockfight. The men arrive at the wantilan carrying a floppy, openwork satchel of fresh coconut leaves woven around the body of their cock, its tail sticking out so as not to damage its ornamental feathers. Reeking of kretek smoke, the arena is packed with men 20 deep, fused into a single body.

Expert handlers are hired to manage the cocks. Specialist blade-affixers, pemasang taji, carry leather or wooden cases where-like surgeon's knives-the lethal, razor-sharp polished steel daggers are kept. The blades are bound tightly to the natural spur of the cock's strongest leg; if they are not properly fastened, the cock will be seriously handicapped. Some of these razor-sharp gaffs are wavy-bladed like miniature kris and can reach lengths of up to 15 cm; the finest cost Rp20,000 a piece.

Before a fight, the owners exchange cocks to ascertain if they are equal in size and strength. Squatting on their haunches, the men incite the cocks to fury by setting them close to each other in the center of the arena. The birds are teased by their handlers, tails pulled, feathers ruffled, palm-wine spit or red pepper shoved down their throats, and swung close to each other-all to arouse their fighting spirit.


The betting process begins when parties crowd into the ring to find out which pairs of birds seem to really want to fight each other. Owners wander around the arena with their cocks held high, looking for a suitable opponent eager to fight. Just by looking at a cock, a Balinese can tell if it's a winner, and if it's worth placing money on. They look at the coloration, size of their bodies and legs, and the size and strength of their feet.

Birds of equal size and spirit are carefully matched, then lined up for a whole series of fights. It's a chaotic scene, extraordinarily stimulating and exciting. The handlers of the first two cocks meet in the center of the ring with the referee (saya) and cash is handed over for the central bet. The juru dalem signals the amount of the central bet (always even money) to the official timekeeper, which triggers the start of frantic side betting (koh kesasi).

Pandemonium results as members of the audience exchange codified hand and finger signals placing uneven bets on the favorite and the underdog. The colors of each cock are shouted across the arena; backers confirm their bets first with eye contact, then with intricate finger, palm, and lip movements. If agreed by both parties, a handicap is imposed on an obviously stronger, larger bird by tying the blade at a disadvantageous angle.

It's really a tight money game. Some have a good cock but not enough money to fight him, betting just Rp. 1,000. Others risk as high as Rp. 100,000, but most bets average Rp. 5,000. A whole village has been known to put up as much as a million rupiah on its favorite cock.

No bets are recorded; if a man doesn't honor his bet, he won't be allowed in the wantilan again. The only records kept are of money owed to the banjar (usually 10% but sometimes 25% of the take). Bets are paid at once with IOU's seldom accepted. After the brokers have squabbled, the bets have been placed, and the opponents are ready, the fight is blessed by a lay priest, the pemangku. Offerings to the bhuta and kala spirits are made in the center of the ring and rice wine poured on the ground. The referee and timekeeper go to their places and the fight starts with a loud gong. An intense stillness descends on the arena.

The fight

Squatting down, the handlers face each other, firmly holding the excited birds who are pecking and glaring at each other. The cocks are let go as the whole audience moans together. After the first contact, often resulting in the wounding of one cock, they are separated and a series of rounds determines the outcome. Rounds are measured by water-clocks (ganji), half a coconut shell with a hole the size of a penny. The timer places it in a bucket of water, and the round (ceng) is declared over when the shell sinks - typically around 10 seconds.

Each fight is limited to three rounds but the bouts seldom last that long. The match can very well be finished in five to 10 seconds; with ruffs aflare and feathers flying, the death blow is frequently delivered in the air. The cocks show amazing ferocity even when crippled, and the best cocks can only fight five or 10 times before they are killed or seriously wounded.

If a wounded cock cannot be revived and his opponent can stand upright for one ceng, the fight is over. If both cocks are still fighting after three rounds, it's a draw (very rare). If one of the cocks runs off, he is disqualified. After a blur of feathers and wings the cocks might suddenly face each other, then one will just keel over dead, the winning bird still flapping its wings, crowing, and pecking vengefully at the corpse.

Sometimes handlers take blood from the wound of a defeated cock and smear it over their bird's beak, giving it a taste of victory. A badly wounded cock can often be revived by artificial respiration or special massages to fight again and win, or kept as a pet out of respect and sentimentality. The losing bird is always given a final chance, and special trainers stand by to tend to injuries between rounds. If his bird is down and out, the owner picks it up and gives it a few seconds to see if it can stand up by itself. If it can't, it's mortally wounded and that's it.

If both cocks refuse to continue, the umpire puts them both under a wicker dome basket. One almost always kills the other within the confined space. The winning bird is held aloft as bettors claim their money. The loser is brought straight to a man whose job it is to cut off the bird's leg, take the spur from that leg, and jam it straight into the bird's heart. The owner of the winning cock takes the limp body of the dead rooster home for cooking (a defeated bird is considered tastier than normal). The breast is torn from the body and made into pretty feather dusters.

After another couple of minutes of betting, the next fight starts. As the crescendo of male voices rises it sounds like a gaggle of geese or the speaking in tongues at a revival meeting. When the gong sounds another pair of cocks go at it, and all is silent. Even in these days of illegal, clandestine gaming, the fights may continue until nightfall. It's been observed that much of the Balinese character comes to the surface in the fighting ring because it is not just the cocks who are fighting, it's also men. The great ethnographer and Balinist Clifford Geertz called these bouts of mortal fury "so pure, so absolute, and in their own way so beautiful, as to become abstract-a Platonic concept of hate."

Last revised on September 15, 2009
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