Bali's cockfighting tradition
lives on

Tri Vivi Suryani, Contributor, Denpasar

Dozens of young and old men gather near a temple in Denpasar, while women busy themselves selling lawar (mixed vegetables and meat), grilled pork, chicken satay, snacks and colorful homemade syrups.

But the center of attention are some male guests rushing in with their handsome roosters.

The guests and viewers form a circle in the temple's wantilan, or open arena, waiting for the commencement of the cockfight, which in Balinese is known as tajen, meklecan or ngadu.

Before the cockfight starts, the owners of the cocks take a final look at their birds. Each examines his fighting cock's taji, a small, single blade attached to its legs, and its muscles before rubbing its feathers tenderly. Some of the cocks are still in bamboo cages, awaiting their turns to perform.

For most Balinese men, cockfighting is a part of their lives. For centuries, tajen has been part of religious ceremonies and communal activities. However, women and outsiders are rarely seen, or allowed to sit, in the enclosed circle.

During the cockfight, betting is the norm and each bet can range from a mere Rp 10,000 to millions of rupiah, and even involve cars, houses and rice fields.

No one knows when tajen started in Bali although some elaborate descriptions were written down in sacred palm leaf texts called lontar.

There are certain rules for cockfighting, an activity that is widely believed by many Balinese to have magical and spiritual powers.

The rules of the fights, the choice of colors, and the shape of the animals have all been set down for generations.

In the past, only local cocks were allowed to take part in the cockfighting, but at present the cocks are also obtained from Java, Lombok, and even as far afield as the Philippines, Japan and the United States.

There are thus no objections to the origin of the animals -- as long as they are physically healthy and do not bear specific marks, such as black freckles on their legs. Such black markings are considered to be bad luck while all such cocks, which are called raja wilah, are prohibited from taking part in cockfighting matches. Other ""forbidden"" cocks are those bearing red splotches on their muscles, skin or tongues. These are called camah.

According to noted puppet master IB Eka Darma Laksana, cockfighting was originally part of the Tabuh Rah purification ceremony, which literally means pouring blood. The ceremony is performed to set the lives of human beings and nature in harmony.

The ritual involves a series of ceremonies, and various animals like chickens, pigs, ducks and water buffaloes are used as the offerings, called caru. The ceremony is proceeded by the slaughtering of the animals, which are placed inside an enclosure made out of coconut leaf mats. Then, the pemangku (low-ranking priest) lays out the offering on the ground and chants prayers.

""The tradition has existed since the era of the Majapahit kingdom,"" explained Eka Darma Laksana. The Tabuh Rah ritual arrived in Bali when Majapahit refugees fled to the island sometime in the 12th century.

According to ancient lontar writings, the Tabuh Rah ritual is part of the Butha yadnya -- a ceremony to expel evil spirit. It was considered important to spill blood on temple ground or other places that needed to be purified.

Another text, the Yadnya Prakerti, explained that cockfights were held during religious ceremonies called tajen telung seet and consisted of three individual fights. These were considered sacred as they were part of the Butha yadnya ritual.

Other evidence, including the Batur Bang Inscriptions I (from the year 933), and the Batuan Inscription (dated 944 on the Balinese Caka calendar) also disclose that the Tabuh Rah ritual has existed for centuries.

Udayana University's professor of customary law, Nyoman Sirtha, said that Tajen originated from the word tajian, because a taji (a small blade) was attached to the cock's legs.

Tajen were usually performed during temple festivals, mainly during Odalan (temple anniversaries), which required caru offerings to the Butha kala to get rid of demons and evil spirits.

But how could a sacred cockfighting ritual turn into a profane forum for gambling?

Eka Darma explained that tajen had long fascinated the Balinese, especially the men. The excitement of watching strong, handsome fighting cocks and betting on the strongest ones made cockfighting the biggest form of entertainment among Balinese men. He added that cockfighting was not merely about gambling, but also communal entertainment.

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