The Balinese Cockfight
For decades, the island of Bali has been considered one of the top traveling destinations in the world. It offers incredible nature, black- and white-sand beaches, crystal clear water and jungles full of entertaining monkeys. As if that wasn’t enough, the island’s waterfalls are worth an exhausting trip, with visitors experiencing an extraordinarily rich and well-preserved underwater world that leaves everyone breathless. Additionally, the well-maintained roads make it a safe place to travel around and the delicious foods make every mealtime a delight.
Balinese Hinduism, the most worshipped religion on the island, is reverently omnipresent with its elaborate flower arrangements, little house temples and joss sticks spreading a light aroma within its slow-burning, airy smoke. When meeting the Balinese, one meets people who are friendly without being too pushy, who are graceful, self-reliant and reserved. As emotions are considered to be a sign of bad manners, silent politeness is conveyed through a smile as the nation’s solid ice-breaker.
For many, this is the pretty picture that Bali paints in our memory. But take a look around the corner and with a bit of Fluck, an experience so animalistic, wild, bloody, scary and powerful awaits. That is, the Balinese cock fight.
Apart from some very rare exceptions, cock fights are highly illegal in Bali – certainly as the Islamic background of the Indonesian state strongly opposes gambling. However, it is common to see cages with roosters on both sides of the road and find fighting places (wantilan) within 50 meters of police stations.
Surprisingly, roosters born on Bali and raised to become fighters live a life that a battery farm chicken can only dream of. As chicks, they spend time under the wing of a concerned mother hen, and as young cocks they enjoy the great outdoor breeze from the ocean and the tropical sky above in complete freedom.
As they get older, feeding and exercising becomes an important part of life, subject to a diet more sophisticated and complicated than even a human meal. The roosters are bathed with special herb combinations to prevent parasites, their feathers are inspected one by one, and their body and legs receive regular massages to avoid cramp. Whereas ordinary chickens would have a life expectancy of around 30-45 days, a Balinese rooster spends up to 2 years in leisure and luxury before being made to fight. Indeed, even the first steps to fighting for these future gladiators is actually behind high walls, chasing colorful and angry bugs.
The cockfight in Bali is an absolute male instinct. In fact, the Balinese word for cock (Sabung) has the same sexual connotations as it does in English. Famous anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead have even stated: “Cocks are viewed as detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own”. Perhaps this is why they are treated not as animals, but as a respected domesticated bird, anthropomorphic objects, friends and partners.
Fights take place in the late afternoon after the business day has finished. Scooters are parked in long rows. Following the sound of a large cheering crowd will bring you to a gathering around a small 5-10 square meter arena. Surrounded by men who have brought their own cocks or have come to bet on them, only one or two local ladies are present on the sidelines – bar the non-Balinese tourists – selling cigarettes or snacks.
Before any fight, opponents need to be matched. To ensure an equal and fair match, each match is officiated by a “qualified” judge to make the right calls. The owners parade through the crowd with their roosters, approaching other birds to awaken the fighting spirit by teasing the cocks in front of each other. Sometimes it takes a while, but when there is some bite and opponents are found, the judge will announce the upcoming fight and prepare each cock with a blade on one leg of every rooster.
The blade itself and the way it is placed on the leg is a highly sophisticated art and has to equal the chances of winning, especially if the competing birds are of different strengths. The loudest part of the fight then begins.
The betting is deafening. After the bet master takes bets from the crowd – and this is a fallible system so the best way is to give your money to a person you trust to bet for you – there will be absolute chaos. Although never loud but always smiling, the Balinese go absolutely berserk, jumping, screaming and waving their hands. It is said that there is zero cheating in cock fights but once experienced, the whole mysterious process results in no records, no papers, no signatures – just men and their word.
With all the bets are placed, it’s time for the cocks to be placed in the ring and around a second later, the fight is over. The longest fight we experienced took about 5 seconds. It all goes by so quickly and with all the commotion, there is no chance to actually see what happens. Usually the cocks fly at each other and try to hit the opponent with the blade. However, as the blade is so sharp, and the cocks are so quick, the attack is reminiscent to a snake attacking its prey.
Taken out of context, cock fights are a brutal game created for sheer gambling pleasure. But if we think about the care and love that the animals received prior to their glory of being a gladiator in the ring, there is perhaps an extremely interesting phenomenon to explore. Through the placement of bets for fights, the conflicts become outspoken (I bet against your cock), apologies are then made and accepted by others (I bet for your cock) and alliances are formed (We bet together against them). Defeat is accepted with the same dignity as glory brings to a win.
Cock fights are used as an instrument of solving conflict and as an extension of anger management in Balinese culture. Though it is not a community of superheroes or saints – conflicts appear in their society as it would in any other – the Balinese attempt to avoid the suppression of anger, fear, or passion that is so detrimental to our mental and physical health. While the very core of Western civilization tends to rely on conflicts, discussions or questioning, the Balinese culture tries to avoid outbursts of emotion or open conflict. As cocks represent manhood, the cock fights perhaps substitute the fights between men. Or families. Or groups. Or villages. The cock fight is a substitute war and as an examination of Balinese culture by anthropologists has found, cock fights are representative of the conflicts between men. The roosters sacrifice their blood – in place of human blood. So while we fight each other, the Balinese make the roosters fight their fights, creating an environment seemingly chaotic but still well-regulated, where blood is sacrificed and conflicts are solved.
Subscribe to our Stripes Pacific newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, cultural information, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!
Follow us on social media!