Monday, May 31, 2010

Balinese Cockfight (with apologies to Geertz.)

Yesterday we went to another trance possession ceremony, this one in Denpasar. But the thing that really took me out of my comfort zone at this one was the cockfighting. The Balinese have this marvelous way of mixing the sacred and profane. So while those in the inner temple are concerned with prayer and other sacred pursuits, in the outer temple there is a cockfight tournament and market and the place is absolute Bedlam.

Hundreds of men gather around the cockpit which is about 30 feet across and underneath the usual open pavilion. Some sit at the front, most stand and those that can afford it buy a plastic stool for Rp. 3,000 (30 cents) to stand on so they can see better. Around the back, women ply their trade selling drinks and snacks.

To one side sit the officials with a gong for calling the rounds. In the ring, about a dozen men, big fat, hard, betting men, and short, wiry, hungry men. Not your usual temple goers. These cock fighters, spur tiers, and referees all gather to sort out who will fight whom, everyone is looking for an even fight with well matched birds. The birds are about 8-12 months old and have been lovingly cared for by their owners. The handlers hold their cocks at shoulder height, gently under the belly of the bird, with the razor sharp spur on the left leg held away from the body. This protects the bird and handler and also displays it to the crowd. Other handlers retire to the edge of the ring to tie on the spurs.

The ring clears and the two handlers and referees strut around the ring gathering the money to support the main bet. This could be Rp. 7,000,000 at this temple (about $7,000. But this is chump change at another temple cockfight where the locals invite big gamblers from Java, the main bet can be Rp. 700, 000, 000.) Once each bird has accumulated enough money, the bets are opened to the floor and all hell breaks loose as the crowd wave their right hand to the left or to the right (indicate which bird they want to bet on.) The minimum bet is Rp. 10,000, a dollar, usually even odds. Sometimes it is easy to find a taker, other times the crowd has decided on a favorite and you can't place a bet. For the record I, with the guidance of our driver Nyoman, parleyed Rp. 50,000 into Rp. 200, 000. I gave Nyoman Rp. 100, 000. He will save it for his daughter. All this time the handlers are holding their cocks closely together, almost in pecking range, and are riling them up with pinches, feints, and ruffling of feathers.

The fight begins. The two men move with their cocks to opposite sides of the ring and let them go. the birds immediately rush at each other and jump, slash, and peck for their lives. Often the fight is over very quickly, in seconds, with a mortal wound from the spur. Sometimes the fight lasts a round or two. Occasionally, the two birds tire and refuse to fight. In these cases they are placed together in a bamboo cage and fight to the death, or until one cowers in defeat. During the whole thing the handlers bob and weave as though fighting themselves, the crowd roars, and the blood is up. The fight is the blood sacrifice at the temple.

Outside the ring the processions of Barong from local villages, accompanied by the syncopation of clashing cymbals and gongs of the traveling gamelan, continue to wind into the temple, the priest intones over the sound system. All this clashes with the roar of the cockfight and the sensory overload of a Balinese ceremony is achieved.

The defeated birds are plucked at ring side and taken home by the victor to be eaten. Imagine what it must be like, the cock you have lovingly raised for a year crows in the yard, you have millions of Rupiah in your pocket, and you are eating your defeated opponent -- smells like victory.

Here is Geertz's article.

The betting...

The flight ....

The ignominious end of the defeated.

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