Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Balinese Cock Fighting (Tajen), Between Tradition and Gambling which against the Indonesian Law

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3938809 In 1981 the government of Indonesia, presumably motivated by high moral principles, decreed that all forms of gambling, including cockfighting, would henceforth be illegal. The results of this law have been about the same as anywhere else in the world where popular, relatively innocuous, and slightly immoral activities have been prohibited. The practice has merely moved away from prying eyes so that it is less obvious but still very real. So popular has cockfighting been in Bali for so many decades, that it is about as realistic to tell a Balinese man that he cannot participate in his favorite sport as it is to tell the sun not to rise.  Concealing cockfights from the law isn't all that difficult. It is illegal to possess drugs, or firearms, but not chickens, and I have never heard of anyone being arrested for carrying a fighting cock down the street. So, the animals don't have to be concealed just what they do to each other. And there are more than enough of out-of-the-way places in Bali to insure that this tradition is perpetuated. 
Every now and then the cops come and break up a cockfight. But, usually they have better things to do, and they know full well that, as soon as they go away, it will be business as usual. So, the law doesn't take this matter very seriously. A local policeman who tries to keep his friends neighbors from cockfighting is not likely to be on the scene very long. The main result of declaring cockfighting to be illegal is that the material aspects must be portable, in case of a sudden raid. That requires dispensing with some of the equipment that was traditional, such as round timers. It also means that villagers can't use the big, roofed arenas called wantilan that were built years ago for cockfights.
Popularity
Why is cockfighting so popular? For one thing it is the slot machine or the bingo game of the third world. A fair percentage of the world's population seems to be addicted to gambling. In the West, this may require some fairly sophisticated equipment, some odds-making center, complex communications equipment, and an assurance than an unseen and perhaps unknown person will pay up if you win. Not so with cockfighting. One doesn't even need to own a cock. He can just show up and gamble to his heart's content limited only by his pocket book, since all bets are in cash.
For another thing, cockfighting is exciting. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators, and frequently there is a necessarily portable card or dice game on the ground nearby.  Pulling slot machine handles or filling out bingo cards all day long is a rather anti-social existence. Cockfighting is quite the opposite. It is a chance to see one's friends, gossip, meet newcomers, and just pass the time of day. It is also the chance to make or lose a lot of money. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the government banned it the fact that those who bet and lost were among those who could least afford to do so. I have heard a hundred stories about locals who literally bet the farm on their favorite cocks and lost everything. 
Religious Aspects 
Cockfights have one other aspect, the religious, that is not well-appreciated by visitors to Bali. One important characteristic of the Balinese Hindu religion is the making of offerings. This is a complex subject that requires here a broad, sweeping generalization. One important function of offerings is as a means of communications between man and the gods. Higher deities are given offerings that emphasize the beautiful and tasteful side of life flowers, fruits, leaves, and the like, usually placed in containers of young coconut leaf that are cut to various degrees of intricacy. These offerings are normally placed in elevated shrines or niches, befitting the belief that these deities have physical as well as spiritual elevation. 
Theoretically only three rounds of such a religious cockfight are legally permitted. But, things being as they are, the normal procedure is to retire to the local wantilan and continue, sometimes all day long. The police won't bother such an event since it is held under the guise of religion. 
Craftsmen
guungan siap Cockfighting supports a considerable handicraft industry. The most obvious necessities are the big, beehive-shaped cock baskets woven in a hexagonal pattern from bamboo strips. Every road is lined with rows of these cages, called Guungan siap. They are shifted regularly to give the inhabitants thereof the proper balance of light and shade. The idea of placing them near a road is to get the cocks accustomed to noise, people, and activity, so that, when put into action in the arena, they will not be afraid of the spectators and noise and run away. Hanging on the outside of the cage is a half coconut shell from which the  cock is fed his special mixture of food and from which he is watered frequently. There are several villages in Bali in which the chief industry, next to farming, is making cock baskets.  These baskets are too big to be used for carrying a cock to the fight on a motorbike or on foot, so there is a brisk trade in smaller, purse-like, portable baskets with carrying string that can be slung over the shoulder, or with handles that allow them to be carried like a shopping bag. 
There are craftsmen who specialize in making the sharp steel spurs, called taji, that are tied on the cock's leg before the fight. In the old days broken automobile springs were the raw material, and the blades were straight and shaped like stilettos. Nowadays many smiths use pieces cut from hard, tough, industrial-size hacksaw blades. There are others whose specialty is sharpening the blades and removing the nicks from previous encounters. 
Vocabulary
There are several words for the cockfight itself. The most common is Tajen, derived from the steel spur, taji, that is tied on the cock's leg. There is a very large special vocabulary that is closely involved with chickens, fighting cocks in general, and all of the activities that a cockfight involves. I have collected 59 words that are seldom used for anything other than cockfighting, plus eight more words that are involved with the odds. There are, for example, nineteen special words that are used to describe the color and configuration of the feathers of a cock.
In addition to the vocabulary, there is an extensive lore in both the tangible and intangible factors that may determine the outcome of a cockfight. Certain colors of cocks should only fight certain others colors of cocks on certain days, at certain times of the day, depending, of course, upon the phase of the moon, and must be placed only in certain directions with respect to opponents. There are auspicious and inauspicious days for cockfighting that are determined by the calendar. 
Preliminaries
There are many preliminaries leading up to the actual fight itself. If the cockfight is not held in connection with a ceremony that fixes its beginnig, the event usually is staged in the late afternoon when the heat of the day has passed. The cocks are brought by their owners to the appointed gathering place in small, flexible carrying cages made of coconut or lontar palm leaf or bamboo. The food sellers bring their wares on their heads of by bicycle. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, and their handlers squat on their haunches behind them. It is a noisy, color affair, with the crowing of the cocks, the cries of the food vendors, and the raucous laughter and chatter of the crowd. Balinese are not sticklers about time, so there is usually a long wait. 
Before the preliminaries begin an offering is usually placed in the fighting area. Then the handlers or owners who want to match up their cocks come out into the arena to seek opponents. Usually a miscellaneous crowd of bystanders collects too. After much wandering around and talking, quite time-consuming, a potential opponent is usually found. The two handlers involved squat down, facing each other, and, still firmly holding their birds, allow them to glare at each other and, perhaps, get in a peck or two. Ruffs flare, and the animals get very excited. Then the handlers exchange birds by simultaneously handing the bird with the right hand and receiving the other with the left. Muscles are felt and strength is tested. 
Sooner or later a match and the amount of the bet are agreed upon. If a cock is being handled by someone other than the owner, this handler must ask the owner's approval, and he may veto the match; but this is rare nowadays. After three or four pairings of opponents has been made, considered to be one set of matches, preparations are made for the fights. 
The Blade

The next step is to affix the blade, the taji, to the cock's leg. The person who does this is usually a specialist, not the owner or handler. A taji is a small steel dagger, 11 to 15 centimeters long from tip to tip. The blade is a thin diamond in cross section and terminates in an unsharpened, roundish handle that constitutes about one-third of the length of the whole taji, where the blade is attached to the bird's leg. There are all kinds of special stories and lore about taji. Menstruating women may not look upon them or touch them. Some say that they may only be sharpened at the dark of the moon. They must be forged with charcoal from a tree that has been struck by lightning, and some say that they may only be made when there is lightning going on outside. They must not be touched by a member of a family in which there has been a recent death. And so on, depending upon whom you listen to and where you are. A good taji may cost up to Rp 10,000. There are usually several tying specialists around, to be hired for a small fee to affix the blades. Or, it sometimes happens that the handler has his own taji. The taji are carried in a little wooden or leather wallet containing usually 6 to 12 taji of different sizes. The appropriate size for the cock at hand is selected.
The blade is attached, normally to the left leg, by wrapping twine around the leg and handle of the taji. This is an extremely important part of the preparation. If a blade is improperly fastened, the cock will be at a great disadvantage. There are numerous ways of attaching the blade by tying it in various positions relative to the foot of the cock and at various angles.  
Betting
When all pairs of cocks for the first set of matches are ready, the arena clears out, and the first match begins. The handlers of the first two cocks meet, with their birds, in the center of the arena and give to one of the referees the cash that represents the central bet. This is the bet that was agreed upon when the match was made a few minutes earlier. And it is always even money no odds. The money is provided by the owners, who usually get contributions from family, friends, and backers in the crowd. The bet may be considerable. Even at the small matches, a central bet of Rp 100,000 is not unusual. And at the really big cockfights as much as Rp 1 million is often et. 
There are always several referees, in the arena. But, the chief judge is the man in charge. He must be a man of impeccable honesty and reputation, and he must have no relationship to or interest in any of the owners, handlers, or cocks. His word is undisputed law in the arena. If he is tainted in any way, honest people will not fight their cocks under him. 
Before gambling was outlawed in Indonesia, the system of judges, referees, and time keepers was fairly elaborate, often with a permanent arena, tables, benches, and all the paraphernalia required. Nowadays, except for matches that take place in a religious context, cockfights must be conducted with an eye out for a raid by the police. This makes it impossible to use anything that cannot be quickly packed up and carried hastily away to safety. And so there are now usually no special facilities. Any open area will do. There is usually no special timing equipment. There is not a retinue of judges and referees. Things are kept simple because of the possible necessity of a hasty retreat. 
Odds
After the first color shouts, made to establish the favorite, those who wish to bet on the underdog start yelling the odds that they want. Thus, the color shouters are the backers of the favorite and the odds yellers are backing the underdog. The object is for two of these opposing betters to find each other in a crowd when they are separated by a distance as great as the width of the arena, packed so tightly together that even standing up is difficult, and walking around is impossible. This is done, however, with great efficiency and ease. There are names for the various odds, as follows: 
10 / 9 = dapang 
5 / 4 = gasal 
4 / 3 = cok( soft c, pronounced chock) 
3 / 2 = tludo 
5 / 3 = tlewin 
2 / 1 = apit 
5 / 2 = nglimin 
And if a better shouts balu, or sapih after the odds, he wants to win even if the fight ends in a draw - a rare event. The first four on the list, the lowest odds, are by far the most common. The backer of the underdog tries to get the longest odds possible, and the favorite backer tries to get the shortest. The underdog backers usually start at about 3/2 and are forced by 
lack of takers to work down to lower odds. The favorite backers look for shouters of low odds, but, if there are none, have to settle for higher odds. Both types of backers usually indicate the amount they want to bet by holding up fingers. 
Curiously enough, the monetary unit of betting is not the Indonesian rupiah, the standard of currency for the entire country, but, rather, the ringgit, a unit of money used many years ago when Indonesia was a Dutch colony, and long since abandoned. No prices anywhere in Bali are quoted in ringgit except bets on cockfights, and there nothing but ringgit are used. Since there is no ringgit currency, bets are necessarily paid off in rupiah, but they are always made in ringgit. The number of fingers held up indicates the number of thousands of ringgits that are being wagered, unless the better indicates by his shouts that it should be interpreted as hundreds of ringgit. One ringgit is 2 1/2 rupiah, regardless of foreign exchange. So, two fingers means 2,000 ringgit or Rp 5,000, which  is an average size side bet at a medium size cockfight. 
During this phase of proceedings, confusion and noise are maximum. The sounds are deafening, as the odds criers yell out: "cok, cok, cok, cok", or: "gasal, gasal, gasal, gasal." The favorite backers shout their colors in a frenzied patter. There is much waving and shouting and gesturing to attract attention. 
While the betting is going on the handlers carry the cocks to the center of the arena and incite them to fury by pushing them at each other, plucking their combs, and bouncing them on the ground. Betting frenzy reaches utter pandemonium as fight time approaches and those so far unsuccessful at placing bets try frantically to do so at the last minute. 
The Fight 
tajen01 When the referee feels that betting has gone far enough, he indicates that the match should begin. The crowd suddenly becomes quiet after a few last-minute bets are quickly placed. The referee and the judges, any, squat down in the corners of the arena, and the handlers release their charges from opposite sides of the arena, at a distance. Anything can happen.  Usually the birds fluff their ruffs, extend their necks, and, after a preliminary glare, have at each other in a fury of feathers and flying feet, so quickly that the eye can hardly follow the action. The crowd groans and shouts, almost as one man, following the action with united body. Rather soon one cock lands a solid stab with its taji. At once its handler signals the head referee to stop the first round. This is done to prevent the two animals from making further contact, since the wounded cock could easily stab the one that stabbed him, when the latter closes in to peck him to death. The time keeper starts his count. 
In the old days the time keeper used a unique kind of clock called ceng, a half coconut shell with a hole in the bottom, placed, large side up, in a bucket of water. Its sinking time, obviously rather variable from place to place, but usually about 10 seconds, is also called one ceng. The time keeper's gong was sounded once after each ceng. Three ceng are allowed between rounds. Nowadays the referee simply counts off the seconds out loud so all can hear. 
As soon as the winner is declared the bets must be paid up. Side bets are paid in cash - at once. In large, crowded arenas those who are wedged into the crowd wad up their bills and throw them at the persons who won their money. If the money misses or lands in the arena, someone always forwards it to the rightful owner. There is remarkably little bickering and  dispute over who owes what to whom. 
The owner of the winning cock gets the entire central bet, which has been kept by the referee during the fight. From this he must pay the handlers, the blade affixer, the percentage to the house, and all those who contributed to his share of the central bet. He also gets the body of the losing cock. He always gives the chopped off taji leg to the tying specialist who unwinds the string, puts the blade back in stock, and looks for further work. 
The match itself has lasted only a few minutes. At once the second match of the set begins. The cocks have already had their taji attached. Their handlers carry them into the arena, the central bet is quickly made, and the side betting begins just as before. There is no connection at all between the separate matches. One set consists of four or five matches. When they 
are over, the handlers and hangers-on come out into the arena and start looking for opponents, just as they did before the first set. This goes on all afternoon until dark, thec crowd never thinning until it is all over. Since many temple anniversary festivals last for three days, there are often cockfights on three successive days too. 
Cockfights are regularly held at ceremonies that occur in family house compounds when it has been determined that the grounds are unclean and need some sort of purification so as to make the place livable. At such times a very large offering, called a caru, is made inside an enclosure of coconut leaf mats, and the butakala asked to help the people who own the property, rather than interfere with daily activities. This is inevitably preceded by a cockfight, as the word gets around fast, and villagers from all overcome and stage an impromptu tajen right inside the family house compound. There is a small, important shrine just outside the front door of my house. On the day of its anniversary, every 210 days, as many as 50 men gather for the obligatory tajen. The family with whom I live are not gamblers and don't even own a single fighting cock. But, they consider it imperative to participate in the fight, and so they buy a cock from a friend, give it to a neighbor to handle in the first fight, and place small bets on it, just so that they can be a part of the activities of the anniversary of their shrine. 
Gambling on cocks has been responsible for the dissipation of a good many Balinese fortunes, large and small. Many a rajah of old lost his palace, wives, and treasure by being cock crazy, as the Balinese call an habitual better. I have heard from many of my Balinese friends how their fathers or grandfathers were reduced to poverty by this addicting habit. 
Cockfights & Culture 
bali-cock It is difficult to penetrate the shell of many cultures. The adjective inscrutable has been overworked in the case of Asia, but it is apt. Fear of misunderstanding and ridicule, desire to maintain privacy, and unwillingness to risk profanation of the sacred have required some groups to erect formidable barriers that prevent perforation by the casual observer. But, every now and then one finds an opening, a cultural crack through which a glimpse of the interior is possible. 
Fighting cocks, cockfighting, and wagering on the fights have been popular obsessions with the Balinese for generations. The tourist who can worm his way into the sweating, jostling, noisy, gesticulating crowd of men and join them, standing around an open arena, watching the proceedings, might wonder if he has stepped into a different country. Are these the graceful, deferential, dignified people whom he has seen in his hotel? Are these the same individuals who carry the offerings to the temples and pray with such lovely and heart-felt fervor? There is no better place than the cockfight to observe Balinese values and behavior. But, the casual observer is likely to focus his attention on the brief cockfight itself. This is understandable. The boisterous crowd itself is a sight to behold. As it suddenly quieted down and the action began, the fast and furious flurries of engagement are punctuated with the ohhhh's, and ahhhh's of the audience. The impressions of color and primeval combat were blurs of color. and suddenly it is over, and the tourist leaves.  
Nowadays it is not easy for the casual tourist even to find a cockfight. Years ago they were common, daily events. Visitors to Bali with sufficient interest, flexibility, and time will find it very interesting to inquire from local people when and where cockfights are going to occur so that they can look for themselves through this window of Balinese culture. 
Adapted from paper titled “Cockfighting in Bali” written By Fred B. Eiseman, Jr.

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