Balinese Cockfights

Balinese Cockfights


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 a lifeline.

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,

“their 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 exhausted.”

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 bamboo 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.

The fight

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 the principals.
Between members of the audience.

Between the principals

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 2×5, that 10,000 rupiah is bet against 12,000. All bets are settled immediately after the fight.

The favourite is determined by a hard-core group of experts.

The birds

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 camah.

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.