“Did you kill Gaddafi?” was the first question asked of me as I stumbled upon a casual yet organised meeting of men on the side of a dirt village road on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali.
“Gaddafi’s dead?” was my first response. Obviously the first time I had heard this news, the man explained. “Yes, killed by rebels yesterday.”
“Well, it wasn’t me. I hardly could have done that and made it all the way here so quickly, could I?” They laughed and the man nodded in contemplative agreement. “She’s got a point,” he said to the others. “So where are you staying?”
They invited me into their circle, I squatted alongside them. Each man had a rooster that they continually stroked as we spoke. They asked all the usual questions that one would ask someone not from this place.
It was a quiet gathering until at one point they tried to challenge one of the roosters to a fight with another, seemingly a display for my benefit. The other rooster starting flapping its wings and unleashed itself from the grip of its owner, running off into the brush. “He doesn’t want to fight,” the man said as he laughed and shook his head.
My education about Bali cockfighting begins
Later on that night I asked a friend about cock fighting. “They fight them for money?” I asked. “No,” he responded. “Adat-istiadat (It’s custom). Every time there is a ceremony at the temple, a cock fight takes place.”
I didn’t think about it much for days until I went to a warung (small road-side shop/eatery) to get some dinner. I had been there a few times already. Being on the way home from the office, it was a convenient stop before the dash home to try to beat the rain that conveniently and habitually seemed to unleash itself in a tropical frenzy late afternoon.
It was a Monday and I sat as usual on the cushioned seating area as they prepared my ‘bungkus‘ (take-out) chatting with Wayan, one of the staff. He asked me about my weekend and I asked about his.
“We had a cock fight here,” he said. “There was a ceremony going on at the temple,” he continued in further explanation. “Here at the restaurant?” I asked, surprised. “Yes, right here,” he pointed to the paved area directly in front of where we were sitting.
“How’s that bungkus coming along?” he called out to the staff in the kitchen. “It’s going to start pouring soon.” His last sentence was almost lost in the roar of thunder. I rode home as the first heavy drops of rain started making their descent.
Why do people cock fight? Really.
One night, after having already settled in for the evening, I decided to learn more about this practice of cock fighting that kept on making its way into my recent conversations.
The first thing I learned was that it is now illegal in Bali, however exceptions are made for fights held for religious purposes. Secondly, it most certainly is a gambling sport, one still very much alive and well throughout the island.
What I had witnessed during that first encounter was a regular occurrence: men gather with their roosters and “exercise” them, staging mock fights and massaging their muscles, keeping them in top condition for the next fight.
Cockfighting as a religious tradition
You may be wondering about the connection between cock fighting and religion. Well, it stems from the practice of making offerings to the gods, a daily ritual of the Balinese Hindu religion.
Higher deities are often given finer offerings of fruits or flowers on elevated shrines or niches, reflecting their perceived physical as well as spiritual status. The lower spirits live near the ground and have the ability to bring harm or an unfortunate event.
They are not inherently evil, however, they are ambivalent, and their behaviour depends on how they are treated. Treated with respect they are just as capable of protecting one as they are of causing disturbance. It is therefore important to win the support of these lower spirits, especially during important religious ceremonies.
Keeping these less-refined spirits satisfied, however, requires a blood sacrifice to purify sanctified ground. Enter cockfighting.
Cock fighting in Bali in reality
While with a permit, three bouts are allowed to fulfill this religious function, many ‘official' fights often just retreat to quieter locations where they may continue on unofficially all afternoon.
Of course, fights take place with or without a permit, and whether for religious purposes or not. Like most things that were once legal and an ingrained cultural practice, one day declaring it illegal has little impact on reducing its incidence, one just has to become smarter at hiding it.
Probably the biggest difference illegality of cock fighting has made is in the equipment used. Larger, traditional equipment has been replaced with more portable options that can quickly be carried away in the event of a police raid.
Even the police though seem to have little power over this afternoon form of entertainment who know full-well that the bouts will continue as soon as they leave.
A police officer who tries to keep his fellow neighbours from cock fighting is unlikely to get any support or respect from their community, further perpetuating its prevalence in everyday Balinese life where a bit of money changing hands can fix almost anything.
One week later
As another weekend rolled around again, I sat across from an elaborately decorated compound. It had been the site of much foot traffic for days.
On my daily ride home from work, the surrounding area would be abuzz with well-dressed locals spilling out onto the streets with their families. Something was obviously happening.
“Is there a ceremony going on over there?” I asked Made, the owner of the café where I sat. “Yes, they are blessing the new temple. Celebrations like this go on for a week.”
He came over and sat with me. “You know, today they will have a cock fight.” “Really?” I said, interested to know more.
“Can anyone watch?” I asked. “Yes, anyone can. But it won’t be in the compound area, it will be out the back somewhere, out of sight. They have to be careful of the police or they’ll have to pay money, if you know what I mean.”
Obviously they hadn’t gone through official channels for this one. “Just ask them where the tajen is, someone will guide you.”
My first cock fight?
I entered the compound to find rows of men on either side of the walkway. I instantly felt out of place as what seemed like a million sets of eyes focused their attention in my direction.
I took a deep breath, maintaining my resolve, and continued through the plumes of smoke of the cigarette charged men’s club that I had just entered.
I had almost reached the back of the compound when I turned to a man sitting with legs dangling off the verandah’s edge. “Excuse me, where will the tajen take place?” I asked.
At first he pretended not to hear what I said, until I repeated. He looked warily at me, casting a stare up and down before responding, “No tajen here.” I stood there for a few moments. Seeing my knowing look, the man sitting next to him discreetly said, “Tunggu sebentar. Nanti, nanti” (Just wait a moment. Later, later).
Just waiting a moment ended up being a good three and a half hours. They allowed me to sit and watch the musical performances, dancing and blessings taking place.
The men were either playing instruments or sitting around smoking from the plentiful baskets of cigarettes of various brands placed around the compound to keep them satisfied during this long process. The women were responsible for placing offerings around the temple vicinity, as well as cooking out the back and serving Balinese coffee and sweets.
The hospitable nature of the Balinese meant that I too was included and prompted to take more and more sweets from the tray each time they came around. I thanked them and took a serving, a variety of sugary items had been placed in plastic trays, stapled shut.
I opened mine and took a photo of it. I looked up to find the man next to me staring at the shot that had just appeared on my screen, not sure if he was interested in my camera or was perplexed at my fascination with the dish. Trying to break the awkwardness of the moment I asked, “What do you call this dish?” He replied with a sudden warmness, perhaps happy that I was interested.
I looked down at the variety of things in front of me. “How do you eat it?” I asked. “Open this bag of sugar and pour it over the sweets.” It was a sticky liquefied mixture that had to be carefully released from the bag to avoid that uncomfortable feeling of sticky fingers. “You eat it with this leaf – it’s like a Balinese spoon.”
They were delicious and the sugar boost tided me through the ceremony which had gone right through regular lunch time hours, during which a steady stream of over-the-shoulder baskets and bags specially designed to discreetly transport the roosters had been venturing somewhere out back.
At about three o’clock, the ceremony suddenly came to an end, and the men got up from their positions and started scurrying over to the food that had been prepared by the women over the past several hours.
The men tucked into their rice and sate sticks and huge slices of watermelon that act as a nice complement to the spicy Balinese cuisine. One of the women came over and insisted that I too join them.
I walked over to the huge bowls of food on display. There were whispers, “Do you think she’s vegetarian?” I smiled to myself and although not having any special dietary requirements, took minimal meat having just recovered from a bout of Bali belly.
I went back to where I had been sitting and joined others who were finishing up their meals. How they seemed to have perfectly clean hands after scooping up a variety of sauces and toppings with them, I don’t know. I tried my best to get through the plate in as civilised a manner as I could with my awkward hand movements, having had very little experience in eating full meals like this.
The man sitting next to me excused himself. “I want to go check out the cock fight,” he said, now seemingly allowed to be public knowledge. Perhaps they figured I wouldn’t have bothered sticking around for the past few hours simply to dob them in for a cock fight which the authorities know happen anyway. I finished up my plate and brought it over to the women, thanking them for their kindness.
I wandered out the back to find a flurry of activity. One bout had just finished when I approached the group of men who were intently focused on the task at hand.
Several roosters were brought under the small wall-less shelter where the gathering was taking place. They were inspected carefully, their muscles felt, their wings pulled out and the general liveliness of the birds assessed, encouraging them to have a few pecks at each other. Finally suitable pairs were found and the preparations for the next fight began.
How does cockfighting in Bali work?
There are two types of bets in cock fighting: the central bet contributed by the owners of the two birds at even money, and the side bets from spectators, never at even money.
The owner of the victorious bird takes home the entire central bet and the announcement of how much has been staked is of considerable interest to the crowd as it shows the confidence the owners and handlers have in their own roosters.
Once the central bet has been established, it’s then on to the side bets with the first order of business to determine the favourite. This is usually done by the more experienced punters, ones who rarely miss a fight.
They do so by calling out the colour of the bird they think is likely to win. The Balinese have developed very specific vocabulary to describe the many different colour combinations of rooster feathers. When birds of the same colour are fighting each other, they additionally call out a distinguishing feature such as its size or its position in the ring like “east” or “north”.
Most participants take the lead of the more experienced company but strict attention must be paid in the chaotic flurry of shouts as initial favourites may change based on their collective input.
Once the favourite has been established, the backers of the underdog start calling out the odds they want. The objective is for two opposing betters to find each other in the commotion – it is this person they will exchange money with directly at the end of the fight.
Money in cockfighting
The amount of money bet on cock fighting can be astonishing. At this point I had only been in Bali for a month or so and had already heard cockfight stories of people betting and losing whole farms, and just a few weeks prior a friend told me about someone losing two cars on this weekend afternoon pastime.
Huge bets were certainly usual prior to 1981 when cock fighting was legal in Bali, with fights taking place on a grander scale in large stadiums. While not unheard of today, the regular village cock fight nowadays, however, usually doesn’t result in a life-changing outcome for those coming up second best.
That’s not to say that there is not a lot of money for the taking though. Walking home with a few weeks’ wages or enough for the weekly food bill is still a significant win, and many of these more experienced betters make a living out of rotating around the local cock fighting scene.
Some locals I spoke to about it said it is the gambling aspect that makes cock fighting exciting; without it, they say, it is no longer entertaining.
Cock fighting spurs
Even at this point in my cockfighting education, I still didn't understand how cock fights worked. Not really. I'm not sure I even truly understood that it was a fight to the death. Was it like boxing or martial arts, where they get points for certain blows or maneuvers? And if one could no longer fight, they were out?
Cock fights in Bali are extra speedy and bloody. Rather than the roosters fighting with their natural spurs, or metal ones as in some countries, here they use a long, sharp blade known as a ‘taji‘.
It was only when I saw the taji being tied to the roosters’ legs that I started to truly comprehend how this was going to play out. I was taken aback at the size of the blade, that I was permitted to see up close. They were not messing around.
The tying of the taji is done by someone with the special skills to do so and who doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the fight, as the way the taji is tied and its angle can impact the outcome.
The man pulled out a leather wallet filled with various taji and chose the length most fitting for the size of the bird. He used quick and precise hand movements to wrap a considerable length of thin, red twine to the rooster’s leg, testing its rigidity by moving the blade with his fingers.
Indeed cock fighting can be a dangerous “sport” for both handlers and onlookers, and critical injuries have been sustained when cocks trying to escape the fight fly off into the crowd. I stepped back to the outskirts of the gathering.
The rain started right on its usual cue in the late afternoon. I tried to gain some shelter under the edges of the small pavilion and although one of the men gestured for me to get closer to avoid getting wet, there was very little room to do so as the men jostled for a good position.
This is most certainly a man's pastime and with the only woman usually present being the one selling snacks on the side, any woman in attendance is likely to be ignored as long as the proceedings are going on.
I appreciated his brief acknowledgement but it was clear he was anxious about the start of the fight and his eyes keep darting back and forth from me to the ring, not wanting to miss a moment of the battle that after all the build-up would be over in a matter of seconds.
The next round begins
The crowd was suddenly animated and they surged backwards and forwards to accommodate the movements of the birds. I couldn’t see anything over the tightly-packed men in front of me but I could certainly hear the commotion of the fight.
Then there was a big wave of sound from the crowd, some calls of victory, some sighs of defeat. The crowd dispersed and there was again a surge of activity as money quickly changed hands.
Just as this was happening, gaps starting forming, giving me a clear line of sight to the ring. One of the roosters was sitting on the ground with streaks of blood across its white feathers. I saw it take its last strained breaths before its head dropped to the ground. Within seconds the bird was covered with a basket and pushed to the side to clear the makeshift ring and they continued their words of elation and disappointment.
The men didn’t notice when I left, already making preparations for the next fight. I made a dash for it in the heavy rain, thanking the women once again as I went through the compound and back out onto the street. It felt good to escape. I bet those roosters wish they could too.
I had been curious about cockfighting in Bali. From the perspective of someone who was staying in Bali for at least a couple more months, and perhaps for the long-term, it was an all-pervasive cultural and social practice that I wanted to investigate, to educate myself about and to use my language skills to get information on as it's a custom that for obvious reasons many locals don't outwardly broadcast.
I didn't need to watch long to see what cockfighting was about in essence, and I had no desire to stay and continue seeing that over and over. Honestly, it was confronting, uncomfortable and heartbreaking. This was quite clearly abuse of animals for human entertainment and it didn't sit right.
While many cultures have a history of blood sacrifice based on religious beliefs, and whether or not you feel that practice is simply a continuation of deep-rooted culture that should carry on, I think it is plain to see that cockfighting in modern-day Bali is a gambling sport and social event that is staged for entertainment, extending beyond any religious function.
Sustainable and ethical tourism is a topic that I've learned a lot about over the years, especially since this experience in Bali, and has required me to take a huge look at how I travel and the types of activities and attractions I support both at home and abroad.
What happens to the losing cock fighting roosters
While the end doesn't justify the means, I will note that the meat of a losing cock fighting rooster is not wasted. In fact, it's supposed to be the most delicious chicken there is and is usually given to the owner of the winning rooster.
I actually saw it on a restaurant menu once when I went out with a friend from Japan who came to visit me in Bali. The dish ‘Grilled Cock Fighting Chicken' instantly caught my attention amongst the usual staples of nasi goreng (fried rice) and nasi campur (mixed rice).
That day was not only the full moon but also the lunar eclipse, so was a particularly popular and auspicious day for cock fights, and hence the meat of cock fighting chicken was available.
I did order it to see what it was all about and to be honest I didn't think it was any different or “better” in terms of taste than a regular chicken, but there were some other definite differences.
For one, there was not much meat on it. A rooster trained to fight is trim and muscular. Which also leads to the second difference: the toughness of the meat. This is why cock fighting roosters are often cooked in copious amounts of spices in an effort to tenderise them. If you imagine something that is overly seasoned, you'll probably understand my description of it verging on “too flavourful”.
So that's the story of how I went from being casually accused of killing a world leader to actually seeing a cock fight in Bali.
Have you ever encountered a practice, custom or pastime that involves animals at home or on your travels?