The Gambling Man’s Favourite Sport Balinese Cockfighting By Skye Laphroaig

Cockfighting is a widely popular and legal sporting event in parts of Asia. The fight is usually held in an arena with seats for spectators. People take advantage of the cock’s natural, strong will to fight against all males of the same species and birds are specially bred to increase their aggression and stamina. Because gambling in Indonesia is considered highly illegal, recreational cockfights are held in secret around the island of Bali. However, certain cockfights (tajenis) are staged on auspicious days in conjunction with Hindu ceremonies that require a sacrificial blood offering to expel evil spirits called tabuh rah (pouring blood). The police won’t bother such an event since it’s held under the guise of an ancient ritual with a religious purpose.

For the Balinese cockfighting is exciting, the death of a chicken in an arena is no different to its demise under the kitchen knife before dinner. There are crowds that jostle and shout, an opportunity to make or lose a lot of money, the chance to see one’s friends and just pass the time of day.

Today is Kajang Kliwon – a bloodletting ceremony and I have been invited to the local arena. There is no better place than a cockfight to observe Balinese values and behavior. Everyone is present; I see a police motorbike outside in the dusty line up. About 200 men are gathered inside a makeshift square arena constructed from lengths of bamboo just off a rutted dirt road. I am quickly accepted as the only woman present. Cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, and handler’s squat on their haunches behind them. It’s a noisy, colourful affair, with cries from food vendors, and raucous laughter. A red laundry bag starts moving at my feet and an excited rooster crows from within. Suddenly the action begins, furious flurries of engagement are punctuated with the ohhhh’s, and ahhhh’s of the audience.

The combatants, referred to as gamecocks are specially bred birds, conditioned for increased stamina and strength and they possess congenital aggression toward all males of the same species. Cocks are given the best of care until near the age of two years old. They are conditioned, much like professional athletes prior to events or shows. While not all fights are to the death, the cocks may endure significant physical trauma. Upon death, the spilt blood is combined with a series of complicated purification offerings to appease the negative forces of the underworld. The Balinese believe that by performing such rites they are satisfying the hunger of the evil spirits that often disturb man and his environment. Buta Kala is more animal-like than the higher spirits and requires considerable amounts of food in the form of offerings. Ceremonies that are directed toward Buta Kala require an animal sacrifice, which may range from a small chick to a water buffalo, depending upon the size and importance of the occasion. Chickens are one of the most accessible creatures from the animal kingdom that roam around village compounds in search of food scraps.

Police crackdowns in recent years have seen a huge decline in this sport, once a thriving activity for village men. The really big-time multi-million rupiah professional cockfighting that used to be a daily event at large public arenas in Denpasar has disappeared. However, animals don’t have to be concealed and there are more than enough of out-of-the-way places in Bali to ensure the tradition is perpetuated on a smaller scale. Every now and then police do actually break up a cockfight, so the material aspects must be movable, in case of a sudden raid. This makes it impossible to use anything that cannot be quickly packed up and carried away to safety. As a result, some of the traditional equipment, such as round timers (for timing intervals) has been dispensed with. It also means that villagers cannot use the big, roofed arenas called wantilan built years ago for cockfights.

Cockfighting supports a considerable handicraft industry. The most obvious necessities are the big, beehive-shaped cock baskets woven in a hexagonal pattern from bamboo strips. Every road is lined with rows of these cages, called guungan siap. They are shifted regularly to give the inhabitants the proper balance of light and shade. The idea of placing them near a road is to get the cocks accustomed to noise, people, and activity, so that, when put into action in the arena, they will not be afraid of the spectators and noise and run away. Hanging on the outside of the cage is a half coconut shell from which the cock is fed his special mixture of food and from which he is watered frequently. There are several villages in Bali in which the chief industry, next to farming, is making cock baskets. These baskets are too big to be used for carrying a cock to the fight on a motorbike, so there is a brisk trade in smaller, purse-like, portable baskets that can be slung over the shoulder like a shopping bag.

Certain colors of cocks should only fight certain other colors on certain days, at certain times, depending upon the phase of the moon, and must be placed only in certain directions with respect to opponents. These matters are the subjects of endless discussions when men gather to exercise their birds. The men who handle the cocks before and during the fights are not the owners but experts who are hired to manage the animals. A good handler has a large bag of tricks to revive a seemingly lifeless cock and instill enough spirit in him to return to the fray. He plucks, massages, and ruffles the feathers. He may breathe on the cock’s mouth – anything to enable the wounded bird to get in just one more blow. Before the preliminaries begin the handlers come out into the arena to seek opponents. After much wandering around, a potential opponent is usually found. The two handlers squat down facing each other, still firmly holding their birds, and allow them to glare at each other. Ruffs flare, and the animals get very excited. Then the handlers exchange birds simultaneously, muscles are felt and strength is tested. After three or four pairings of opponents has been made, preparations are made for the fights.

There are craftsmen who specialize in making the sharp steel spurs, called taji, that are tied on the cock’s leg before the fight. The person who will affix the blade to the cock’s leg is usually a specialist, not the owner or handler. A taji is a small steel dagger, 11 to 15 centimeters long from tip to tip. The taji are carried in a little leather wallet containing usually 6 to 12 taji of different sizes. The blade is attached, to the left leg, by wrapping red twine around the leg and handle of the taji. This is an extremely important part of the preparation. If a blade is improperly fastened, the cock will be at a great disadvantage. If the bird is small, the taji is attached to the outside of the leg and if large on the inside. The angle of attachment is also critical. Thus, a good tying specialist is very important. While the blade is being attached, the assistant holds the cock tight because the blade is razor sharp and could critically injure the wrapper or a spectator if uncontrolled.

When all pairs of cocks are ready, the arena clears out and the first match begins. The chief judge must be a man of impeccable honesty and reputation. The handlers meet, with their birds, in the center of the arena and give the referees cash representing the central bet, which is always even money – no odds. Even at the small matches, a central bet of rupiah 100,000 is not unusual. When the side betting begins people yell at each other, wave money around, stand up and gesticulate wildly. Professionals quickly assess the two cocks, using their considerable knowledge, deciding which is the favorite, and they start shouting its colour. The shout is a repetition of the colour name. If a red and white cock is being pushed as favourite, one hears: “bieng, bieng, bieng, bieng” in rapid fire. While the betting is going on handlers carry the cocks to the center of the arena pushing them at each other, plucking their combs, and bouncing them on the ground. As fight time approaches, people frantically try to place last minute bets.

The fights are governed by a complex set of rules; which above all relies on a system of mutual respect and trust. Many Balinese believe that if a chicken has an unusual colouring it will prove to be a powerful fighter. A popular choice of cock is the betet, a breed that was introduced from the Philippines and has the ability to leap several metres into the air. The referee and judges, squat down in the corners of the arena, and the handlers release their cocks from opposite sides. The bird’s go for each other in a fury of feathers and flying feet. The crowd groans and shouts as one cock lands a solid stab with its blade. At once the head referee stops the first round while the handler of the wounded cock works frantically over his bird, trying all of his tricks to revive it. If both cocks are still going strong after five rounds, the match is declared a draw. As soon as the winner is declared the bets must be paid up. The owner of the winning cock gets the entire central bet and he must pay the handlers, the blade affixer, and a percentage to the house. He also gets the body of the losing cock for dinner, giving the chopped off leg back to the tying specialist.

Back in his family home, I ask Wayan how much money he lost during the fight. “I lost rupiah 200.000 because it was a draw, he says. “I would have received rupiah 1.5 million for a win.” He shows me where the cock is sat, healing its wounds in a cage and explains more about today’s big event.

How often do cockfights happen?
Every six months when there’s a ceremony. If you go just three times a year it’s acceptable by law. Any more is considered illegal and the Police say you are gambling. They take you to the Police station and processing can be very long.

Why are the tajenis (cockfights) important to Balinese culture?
Men want their bodies and minds to be cleansed at a bloodletting cockfight before they attend the special ceremony later in the day.

Are women allowed to watch?
Women can watch but it’s unusual. They are responsible and choose not to gamble money away. They work hard to make enough money to pay for the kids education, offerings, food and cremations.

Do men loose land through gambling?
There are many ways to gamble in Bali by playing games such as dominos. When you add these together, the money does not last long. I have heard from my Balinese friends how their grandfathers were reduced to poverty by this habit.

What food does the cock enjoy and how much do they cost?
He’s fed corn, peanuts, rice, tomato and banana juice to make him stronger. Five days before a fight, he is injected with antibiotics to keep him healthy. Local cocks cost rupiah 150.000 and cocks from Thailand around rupiah 3-5 million.

What were the men shouting just before the game started?
They were raising the stakes of the underdog by waving their money and shouting several words. Tludo, (3/2), cok (4/3) dapang (10/9) and gasal (5/4).

Visitors to Bali with sufficient interest can inquire from local people when and where cockfights are going to occur so that they can experience this aspect of Balinese culture.

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