Bali Cockfighting: the last, hidden link to Bali’s warlike past

Cockfighting is an ancient Balinese tradition. The Indonesian government frowns on it, and the heavy gambling that goes with it (men can lose farms on a single fight), but it remains a part of daily life. Cockfights are staged before religious ceremonies, as an offering to the gods.

Cockfighting 3

Bali, like many other nations, has banned cock fighting as a cruel sport, although the practice is still allowed on the Island of the Gods for ceremonial purposes.These fighting birds are as much a part of Balinese Hindu rites as the burning of incense and giving offerings to the gods.Breeding the roosters, some of which boast feathers with a golden luster that evokes songket, takes place up in the cool, mountainous region above Gianyar.

The Balinese have now become famous for their hospitality, but they didn’t have much choice — there’s no money in machismo. Cockfighting feels like the last link with Bali’s warlike past. Ubud is Bali’s cultural capital, where you can see some local girls practicing a graceful Balinese Legong dance. The contrast with the cockfight could scarcely have been more stark. From the outside it looked like a barn, but inside it was a stadium. Beneath the corrugated iron canopy were four steep terraces around a patch of earth. There were several thousand Balinese men inside — no women and no tourists. The noise of the crowd was shrill, building to a shrieking climax before the beginning of each fight. Men gesticulated wildly, placing bets with fellow punters on opposite sides of the arena in a frenetic semaphore of gestures.

Cockfighting hero

Each cock had fearsome blades strapped to his heels, so the fights were generally brief and bloody, a few seconds of furious activity, a flurry of feathers, then one limp body on the ground and a roar of triumph from half of the baying crowd. If both birds were mortally wounded (which happened several times), the owner of the last bird standing won. Occasionally two cocks had to be forced to fight but usually they needed no encouragement. Their handlers goaded them on by rubbing their beaks together, and gave them the kiss of life when they were wounded, which gave them a brief second wind.

The loser loses more than money. A Balinese man dotes on his fighting cock. It’s a symbol of his virility — the word ‘cock’ is a phallic synonym in Balinese, just as it is in English. It also means hero, warrior, bachelor and ladykiller. To add insult to injury, the winner gets to cook the carcass of the losing bird. This is not just a trophy, but a delicacy — the adrenalin is supposed to enhance the flavour.

Cockfighting 1

Although the roosters will face challenges in the ring, their daily lives will be as close to “natural” as possible. The hens, meanwhile, will live out their seven years of breeding life in this forest cage, raising their chicks naturally.  It’s been observed that much of the Balinese character comes to the surface in the fighting ring because it is not just the cocks who are fighting, it’s also men. The great ethnographer and Balinist Clifford Geertz called these bouts of mortal fury “so pure, so absolute, and in their own way so beautiful, as to become abstract-a Platonic concept of hate.”

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