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Asia travel

Active Bali volcano no deterrent to deadly cockfighting matches in Mount Agung’s shadow

Cockfighting is a traditional and popular illegal blood sport in Indonesia. Two roosters, armed with spurs, are pitted against each other. The winner earns its owner a share of the betting proceeds, and the loser becomes lunch

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 7:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 7:18am

A volcano may be rumbling off in the distance, but for a group of Balinese men and their fighting roosters it’s the roar of the crowd that says the show must go on.

Far off the Indonesian resort island’s tourist trail, heavily tattooed men gather at a clandestine site where birds battle each other – usually to the death – in a gory spectacle known as tajen that meshes blood sport with ancient Balinese Hindu traditions.

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About 100 male spectators gather on bamboo benches around a dirt ring as two roosters pulled from wicker baskets lunge at each other even before the match starts.

The two owners exchange birds to check weight and temperament, a show of sportsmanship to make sure they’re evenly matched.

“If the owners of both fighters reach a deal and say ‘OK, let’s fight,’ then the roosters fight,” says I Made Gunawan, whose rooster is fighting today.

A small dagger about 10 centimetres long is tied to each rooster’s left ankle.

The heady smell of incense wafts over the ring as a roar erupts from the crowd. Bets are placed, usually between 20,000 (US$1.50) and 100,000 rupiah each. There are usually 15 cockfights at these events.

The roosters are released and feathers fly in an explosion of jumping and pecking that pushes the already excited crowd into a bloodthirsty frenzy.

The match goes the distance – three rounds over eight minutes – and the referee calls it a draw. Both roosters, weak and wounded, are unable to keep fighting.

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The ankle blades usually make it a fight to the death in a matter of minutes, punctuated by trails of blood seeping into the dirt.

The winner’s owner not only gets bragging rights and some of the betting proceeds – usually 10 per cent of the purse which can reach US$2,000 – but they also get the carcass of their opponent’s rooster, for eating.

“My fighter lost today – it won the last time,” says Sudira as he helplessly watches his dying rooster being slaughtered to make dinner.

It’s a short career for surviving roosters, who are retired after just a few matches.

“They’re then used to breed with hens,” says Kadek Rudi, whose best fighter is recovering from severe belly wounds.

“The offspring will also be good fighters like their father.”

The fight has taken place not far from Mount Agung, which is currently in an active phase, sparking mass evacuations and leaving tourists stranded after the main airport was temporarily closed.

Despite the dangers, leaving his roosters alone in Pring Sari, a tiny community less than 8km from the belching crater, is not an option for Wayan Kompyang.

“I have to keep taking care of them to make sure they are healthy and ready to fight after this situation calms down,” he says.

Gambling is illegal in Indonesia, and the cockfights could land these men in jail for as long as a decade. In conservative Aceh province, gamblers can face a public whipping under Islamic law.

Cockfighting is the sole source of income for some Balinese men and it dovetails with centuries-old traditions of Balinese Hinduism in the mostly Muslim archipelago.

On a wing and a prayer

Tajen is closely related to a ritual known as tabuh rah held at temples,” says Ni Made Ras Amanda Gelgel, a cultural studies lecturer at Bali’s Udayana University.

“The spilling of blood to the earth is needed to expel buta, or demons, because the blood is believed to appease demons, so they don’t disturb people and the ceremony can be held successfully and safely.

“But it eventually shifted to become entertainment.”

Training roosters isn’t for everyone, however, even those who have a stomach for violence.

“Taking care of the roosters isn’t easy – they have special food and you need to know how to treat the animals,” Gelgel says.

“It’s not as simple as having a good fighter that wins a lot so you can get rich. There is a lot more involved.”