Watching Cockfighting in Bali Religiously

“As much as America surfaces in a ball park, on golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men. ” Clifford Geertz (1973) Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight in “The Interpretation of Cultures,” NY Basic Books.

On my first day in Bali, I hear about a religious ceremony in a temple not too far from where I am staying. Bali is an intensely spiritual island with Hinduism as its main religion; ceremonies are a daily occurrence here. But I am told that this would be of particular interest to several villages involved. As I make my way to the temple, I see a crowd of men standing in front of its entrance in a circle, seemingly very agitated. Getting closer, I realize that a cockfight is going on. The idea of witnessing it does not appeal to me, so I quickly continue to the temple for the ceremony. But I am intrigued by the concept of a cockfight in such proximity to a Hindu temple. I resolve to find out more about cockfighting in Bali.

The next day I am informed that “tajen”, as cockfights are called locally, are done for religious purposes as some ceremonies require the sacrifice of blood to expel or pacify evil spirits. For that reason, cockfights are often performed on the premise of a temple. I also learned that since 1981, the Indonesian government had banned them (both for animal cruelty and because of the gambling associated with it) for non-religious purposes. Enforcing this ban on the “Island of the Gods,” however, is a challenge, as there are temples in every house, office, village, mountain, beach, rice field, a cemetery in Bali… so whatever happens on the island can almost always claim to be for religious purposes. So the police mostly look the other way.

Traveling around the island later in the week with a local companion, I notice bamboo woven baskets housing beautiful roosters everywhere I go. I start to realize how prevalent cockfighting is in Bali. On my last day, driving around hoping to come across one of the frequent processions of locals marching to a temple, I notice many motorcycles and a few cars parked on what looks like a dead-end street. Curious about what is going on, I again find myself amid a small group of men rooting loudly for their favorite bird. Though I do not condone the activity, I decided to watch and photograph this vital part of the Balinese culture this time.

The first step for a rooster owner (or its handler) is to find a suitable opponent for a fight. When this is settled, each cock will have a sharp blade about 4 inches long, called a “taji”, attached to one of his heels with a long string. This “weapon” will make the fight relatively short but quite bloody. But before the fight begins, the men in the crowd shout out which bird they are backing and how much they want to wager. The owners of the two birds then place them on the ground, facing one another. Most of the time, the cocks will fly almost immediately at one another and for a moment, the two birds almost become one as all that can be seen is a mass of feathers frantically moving. This goes on until one drives a solid blow with his taji. Those who lose their bets then give their cash to the cockfight organizer before another round starts. The owner of the winning cock wins some money and, as a bonus, gets to cook the carcass of the losing bird, which is often plucked right on the site.

After witnessing a few rounds, I go back on the road and come across a structure that looks like an arena. I see cockfighting again, but this time on a much grander scale. Hundreds of people are there (men only, the only other woman I see there is the one selling refreshments), and the noise made by the betting and cheering is deafening. One man particularly catches my attention, as he seems to have a very close connection with his bird, a bird that, as we can see, was about to have his last fight.

By the end of the day, it is clear that not all cockfighting in Bali is done for religious reasons.  But even though this is an activity that seems rather barbaric to many of us, there is no denying that it is an integral part of the “Balinese way of life.”




20 Responses

  1. Beautiful photography, and fascinating story. Yes, not always easy watching cruelty in another culture, but there are dangerous sports in our own western culture we take for granted, like horse racing, or men getting injured in rugby, and it’s not easy to suspend judgement on unfamiliar cultures.

    1. Julie, I totally agree with you that there are dangerous sports in our western cultures. The risk of head injuries in American football is just frightening. And we certainly do something as “cruel” or more than a fight to our chickens at home. I may have sounded more judgmental than I meant to be, though it is true that watching it was a bit unsettling for me. But I understand that for the Balinese and a long list of other cultures, it is a long-standing tradition. France

  2. Great photos and thenk you for posting. I would just like to add that fighting cocks live a beautiful life riight up to their last few minutes when they die a noble death. All their life which can last for several years they are few well, cossetted and generally petted and loved. Compare this to a table chicken that lives for 43 days from hatching till slaughter kept in cramped confines, and generally treted inhumanely in most every country. i kow which life I would rather have. the fighting cocks are following a natural instinct and they fight normally. Adding the razor sharp taji to theirr leg, just enhances a natural instinct. cruel? Maybe. But not as cruel as factory farming!

    1. Jill, Thanks for your informed comment. I totally agree with you that these birds have a much better life than any factory farming chicken. It is just a bit unsettling to watch when you are not used to it. Also it surprised me to realize how much some the owners seem to care about their birds, almost like pets. It must be very hard emotionally to watch them fight. France

    1. Thank you Bob. I am glad you like my “stories”. This one is a bit bloody but was quite a learning experience. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

  3. This was fascinating, and a completely different side of Bali, which is usually portrayed as such a peaceful place. I think I’d be horrified to watch it. Don and I found ourselves unexpectedly at a bullfight in Peru and as soon as the picador started stabbing the bull we left. At the same time if I’d come across cock fighting in Bali I’m sure my curiosity (and desire to photograph it) would have gotten the better of me. Beautiful evocative photographs. The man with his white bird – you caught the devotion in his face. And the one that has just the two cocks in it is fabulous.

    1. Thanks Alison. Yes my first reaction was to walk away but cockfighting is an integral part of the Balinese culture just as much as the religious ceremonies. Maybe it is the Balinese yin and yang 😉 In 1817, Stamford Raffles wrote in his book on Java: “The Balinese are strangers to the vices of drunkenness, libertinism, and conjugal infidelity: their predominant passions are gaming and cockfighting. So this has been part of their culture for quite a while. It is a little unsettling for us to watch but learning about other cultures is what traveling is about. I know you agree with that 😉 Best, France

  4. Fascinating blog with beautiful and vivid photos about such a gruesome sport! Glad to hear roosters are consumed upon losing. As always, France, well done!

    1. Thanks Sally. I agree with you that it is a good thing that the birds are consumed upon loosing. Why not. I do not mean to be any more gruesome but I was told that these fighting birds are particularly delicious because of the way they are pampered all their life and because of the adrenaline released during the fight. I don’t know whether there is any truth to the later point but this is the local belief. All the best, France

  5. Firstly Merry Christmas to you and all the best for 2016.
    How is your shoulder ? 100% ?
    Indonesia and Bali are a land of contradictions and I suspect for the gamblers religion & cockfighting parted ways a while back .
    To me it seems very cruel & here police raid & shutdown the highly illegal cockfighting clubs that spring up every now and then..
    All societies have their cruel activities so in the scheme of things .. we are all still evolving .
    The photos are as always a terrific journal of imagery

    1. And Merry Christmas to you, dear Emilie. And best wishes for a terrific 2016. My shoulder is getting better but I am not sure whether it will ever recover fully. But it is good enough to do most things and could have been much worse. Thanks for asking and caring. Indeed Bali is a land of contradictions. And cockfigthing is very difficult to comprehend in the Western world, yet it is a very common activity in other parts of the world. I guess learning about other cultures is what traveling is about. Warmly, France

  6. Excellent story France. One which constantly reminds me never to judge other cultures based on our Western ideals. I have experienced both cock fighting and bull fighting, and although I never thought I’d like them, each event was thrilling. As for being barbaric, I wonder what people think of humans cage-fighting or boxing, both somewhat barbaric in their own right.

    1. Thank you Jeremy. You are right, traveling should be about learning from and about other cultures, not judging them. And yes, we have plenty of barbaric rituals.

Would love to hear from you!

Recent Posts

Subscribe to Stories via Email

Enter your email address to get notifications of new stories via emails. No worries, I don’t write very often.