Cockfighting was an integral part of Balinese Hinduism long before the Indonesian authorities decreed that there would be no place for violence and gambling in their future vision for the world’s biggest Muslim country. But Jakarta is, psychologically at least, a world away from the villages of rural Bali and in many ways its influence does not carry too much weight here.



On holy days Balinese men dutifully apply for the official permit that allows religious cockfights on this island…and the rest of the time they gather secretly at Saturday afternoon ‘Gladiator Schools’ behind the paddy fields. A casual visitor might think twice before venturing under the sweaty shade of the tin-roof where two hundred men are yelling and gesticulating in what seems like total pandemonium. The arena is just a pounded dirt floor, moistened with generations of betel-nut spittle, and the air is thick with clove-scented cigarettes and saffron-coloured dust. Tattooed hands wave wads of notes – denominated in thousands – and, squatting in the centre of the arena, a pair of handlers clutch two crowing gladiators.


Neck-ruffs rise ferociously and steel spurs flash as claws scrabble the dust. Even the subtlest body language is noted by the spectators and the odds shift in favour of a red bird that seems to be the aggressor. Sure enough the fight begins with Red launching himself into the air with his heels kicking viciously at the neck of his white enemy. But the initial attack seems not to have done any damage and the crowd ebbs and flows as the fighters flail around the arena in a cloud of dust and feathers. With the view often blocked by a scrum of heads, the roar of more quick-sighted aficionados is the first signal that a wound has been inflicted.


The crowd gasps as Red stumbles and the handler of the white cock rushes in to save his charge from possible injury in what he hopes might be his opponent’s death-throws. But the favourite is now unsteadily back on his feet and reels drunkenly. His left wing hangs, as if broken, and as the white bird closes again he runs for cover – to the derisive shouts of onlookers and a panicked exit by those squatting at ringside. The razor-sharp taji spurs (fashioned from industrial hacksaw blades) are capable of inflicting severe injuries among the legs of the spectators.


But there’s no escape: death or victory are the only possible outcomes this afternoon and Red is returned to the centre of the ring to face what he must now realise is his slayer. As much as a million Rupiah (about £75, or perhaps 2 months wages in Indonesia) might be riding on the outcome of the next few seconds. Every village has its professional cockfight gambler, who does little other than tour the ‘Fight Clubs’ and its perennial loser whose hard-earned wages invariably soak away into the bloody dust of Saturday afternoons. Women are rarely seen at a cockfight, and aside from chopping the chillies that are believed to make the fighters aggressive, rarely have anything to do with this macho sport.


Some anthropologists have gone so far as to describe fighting cocks as surrogate penises; it is no coincidence, they point out, that the word ‘cock’ carries the same connotations in Balinese slang that it does in English. There is an undeniable air of masculine pride in the way in which village men strut about with their favourite bird under their arm; crouching to preen its tail-feathers, to feel how its muscles are developing…and to glow with pride when it measures favourably against that of his fellows.


The odds of a bird making it far in the Balinese ‘fight game’ are slim and the chances of living to old age are almost nil. In other countries, where steel spurs are not used, death is uncommon but one of the most unpleasant parts of the business, in Malaysia for example, is the area at the back of the arena where the handlers stitch damaged flesh and clear internal haemorrhages (surprisingly common) so that their fighters can return to the fray.


Less than two minutes after the bout started the once proud Red is just a heap of feathers. The man who may have spent three years preparing him for this one fight hacks off a leg to make it easier to remove the fallen gladiator’s little sword. As he hands the plucked bundle of pink meat to the owner of the winning cock the expression of regret that I have been watching for – and hoping for – finally comes over his face. Later someone explains that the meat of a defeated fighting cock is said to be the most delicious there is.


by Mark Eveleigh