Controversial cockfights in Bali

Ever wonder why Balinese men love their roosters? Roosters are great alarm clocks, and they are also prized fighters! In some places, cockfights are held regularly, partly as entertainment and as a religious practice. While it is a long tradition, the practice has some ethical issues.

Popularly known as tajen, cockfighting is a tradition that goes back centuries. Some say it has been around since the tenth century, predating Dutch colonial times.

The tradition of cockfights is believed to come from an ancient religious practice known as tabuh rah, literally meaning “to spill blood”. Back then, ceremonies could not start without spilling the blood of at least three roosters.

Spilling blood may be considered cruel, but it is a grey area in Balinese culture. Spilling blood is often associated with appeasing demons and lesser spirits so they do not disturb humans. In another context, spilling blood is also related to the purification of the microcosm and macrocosm.

Tajen is mostly a male-exclusive tradition. Women are a rare sight at cockfight arenas, except for food and drink sellers, primarily due to Balinese culture that frowns upon women involved in gambling. Additionally, cockfighting is believed to be the last cultural link to Bali’s past.

The roosters represent the virility and masculinity of the owner. And those who are the better fighters are better respected. As such, Balinese men treat their roosters like princes. Have you ever noticed the wicker baskets on the side of the road? Men put the roosters there so that the roosters learn not to fear people. The men also groom them, pamper them with good food, and talk to them. Sometimes, men will also gather and compare their roosters.

In a cockfight, men gather around an arena. Two men carry their roosters into the arena, and the “referee” starts taking bets. Before the match, the owners strap a small blade on one foot of the rooster. Once all bets are counted, the referee then commences the cockfight. The fight can continue until one rooster kills its opponent or when the opponent forfeits. The loser (often dead) can then be claimed by the winner, who will most certainly cook it for dinner.

In modern times, tajen often finds itself in a negative light. Since people bet on the roosters, it is considered gambling, rendering it illegal according to positive law. People can lose millions of rupiahs in cockfights!

Due to freedom of expression, the government allows cockfights to be held only as part of a religious ceremony. However, cockfights continue to flourish clandestinely. “Illegal” cockfights can be found in secluded places. However, it is not advised to visit these places, as it can be dangerous.

Aside from legal issues, there are also concerns about animal abuse. Animal rights activists cite the unnecessary killing and cruelty of pitting animals against one another.

Despite the controversies, cockfights remain a part of Balinese culture. As Clifford Geertz wrote in his Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, “Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence. The cockfight is the Balinese reflection on theirs: on its look, its uses, its force, its fascination.”