The Dutch banned cockfighting in Indonesia. The British banned
cockfighting in England in 1840. The independent Indonesian government
also banned it - except in Bali, but only for certain purposes.
On 1 April 1971 President Suharto also declared gambling illegal,
which is in line with Islamic teaching. Cockfighting is part of
the Balinese way of life. The Balinese loophole gave the Balinese
Cockfights, which in Balinese are known as tajen, meklecan or
ngadu, are required at temple and purification (mecaru) ceremonies.
No one knows when they started. The Tabuh Rah ritual to expel
evil spirits always has a cockfight to spill the blood. Tabah
Rah literally means pouring blood. There are ancient texts disclosing
that the ritual has existed for centuries. It is mentioned in
the Batur Bang Inscriptions I from the year 933 and the Batuan
Inscription from the year 944 (on the Balinese calendar). The
blood of the loser spills on the ground, an offering to the evil
spirits. Three cockfights are necessary for this purpose. Only
men participate. Women do not even watch.
To the Balinese cockfighting is much more than a religious ritual.
Raffles in his History of Java commented,
predominant passions are gaming and cockfighting. In these amusements,
when at peace with the neighbouring states, all the vehemence
and energy of their character and spirit is called forth and
Men in villages tend their roosters lovingly. They identify with
them and much conversation turn on them. It is good sport. The
vast majority of men own at least one rooster. They are symbolic
expressions of their owners. The sound of roosters crowing to
each other early in the morning is the normal wake-up call. It
is common throughout Asia.
The roosters, often of very splendid colours, are kept in wicker,
cages placed outside their owners' houses. It is important
that the roosters get used to the commotion of everyday life.
They are trained not to be distracted by unusual sounds when they
get to the all-important fight. They are fed a special diet of
maize. Red pepper is pushed down their beaks to give them spirit.
The birds are at their fighting peak at about three years old.
A cockfight is an offering: see the article
entitled Balinese Offerings. Cockfighting is a sacred matter.
The rules are written down in the ancient lontar
palm books, which are village heirlooms. The umpire's word
is final. In the case of cocks dying at virtually the same time,
he decides. Before the cockfight begins, a pemangku priest will
present offerings to the evil spirits and also the gods. Then
the serious business begins.
In pre-colonial times cockfights were normally held on market
days. The ring is usually near the market in the wantilan in the
centre of the village. The fights were taxed and the taxation
was a major source of revenue for the princes, who were patrons
of the fights.
If you see a large number of motorbikes parked outside a field
or a temple - usually in the late afternoon, the chances are that
a cockfight is being held. Cockfights are frequently held in Pura
Dalem in Ubud next to Kunang-Kunang
II, Murni's shop. Anyone can attend. It is a noisy, busy affair.
Be careful during the fight, the cocks have lethally sharp steel
blades attached to their spurs. They can cut a finger off.
There are usually about nine or ten matches. It goes on for three
or four hours until sunset.
Men travel to cockfights with their roosters. They sit in a circle
in the wantilan or an open area. Women sell lawar (mixed vegetables
and meat), grilled pork, chicken satay, snacks and colourful drinks.
Each fight is treated equally and, as soon as one fight ends,
men look for a suitable match for the next. They try to match
cocks of equal ability for a good fight. The fight should be unpredictable.
If there is an imbalance, the spur on the stronger bird is adjusted
slightly to give him a handicap.
The expert spur affixers affix the spurs. The sharp steel spurs,
called taji, are single blades, about four or five inches long,
tied around the leg with string. Spurs are sharpened only at eclipses
and during a dark moon and should not be seen by women. The word
for cockfight, tajen, comes from tajian, the taji being the blade.
Once done the cocks are placed on the ground in the middle of
the ring. The timekeeper sits at a desk on the right hand corner.
He pierces a coconut with a small hole and puts it in a bucket
of water. It takes about 21 seconds to sink. At the start and
end he beats a kulkul, a slit drum. During this time of 21 seconds
the cocks must be left alone. If they have not fought, they can
be picked up and encouraged.
The process is repeated. If they still refuse to fight, both are
put into a wicker cage and they always fight then. If this is
not necessary and they fight on their own, as soon as one is injured,
the cock that landed the blow is picked up, so that both birds
are not injured.
The coconut is now sunk three times. Then the one that landed
the blow is put down to walk around for another coconut sinking
period. He is then picked up and the coconut is sunk twice more
and the fight has to start again. The interval will have taken
about two minutes, during which time the injured bird will be
tended. The second round is the final one. Usually the one that
landed the first bow lands another fatal blow. The loser is the
one that dies first.
Gambling seems to be a necessary part of the cockfight. There
are two sorts of bet:
Between members of the audience.
This bet is usually large and arranged quietly between collectives
of mates, including the owner backing his own bird. The bets are
even money. The umpire oversees the bet, which is the formal one,
and holds the stakes. This is the larger of the two kinds of bet.
The winner takes his bet and also gets to keep the body of the
beaten bird. Out of the takings about 10 per cent. is paid to
the umpire and the sponsors of the fight. If there is no winner
a draw is declared. Then the next fight begins.
Between members of the audience
The side betting takes place after the centre bet has been concluded.
These side bets are usually small. They are between individuals,
who yell and gesture to each other from their positions in the
audience. The bets are always odd. The odds are 10-9, 9-8, 8-7,
7-6, 6-5, 5-4, 4-3, 3-2, and 2-1.
The gambler wanting to back the underdog, not the favourite, shouts
the short-side number of the odds he wants to be given by someone
else. So, if he wants four to three, he shouts three, which means
he puts up three. On the other hand, a person wanting to back
the favourite shouts out the fact by yelling the colour of the
bird, brown, speckled, or whatever.
The men search for a suitable partner in the audience. The man
backing the underdog indicates how large a bet he wishes to make
with a number of fingers in front of his face. If his partner
does the same, the contract is concluded and the bet is made.
The number of fingers is the multiple of the underdog's bid, so,
for example, two fingers in a 6-5 bid means 2x5, that 10,000 rupiah
is bet against 12,000. All bets are settled immediately after
The favourite is determined by a hard-core group of experts.
The rules of the fight, the colours and the shape of the birds
have been laid down for centuries.
In the past only local birds were allowed. Now, cocks from Lombok,
Java and even as far afield as the Philippines, Japan and the
United States are used. They must be healthy and not have any
specific marks, such as black freckles on their legs, as these
are unlucky, called raja wilah. Forbidden also are cocks with
red splotches on their muscles, tongues or skins. These are called
The real point
Geertz studied the Balinese cockfight and his essay Deep Play
- Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, published in The Interpretation
of Cultures, refers to the real meaning of the cockfight for the
male participants. That is that they identify with their cocks
so much, that the bets, the big bet between the principals, is
a laying of one's public self, one's masculinity, on the line.
The big bets, which are even bets, should not affect the gamblers
economically in the long run. The real issue at stake is personal
triumph or humility.
On the other hand the small bets can affect one's pocket and it
is these bets that the gamblers go for and family fortunes can
be lost. There are many cases of it.