Indonesia, like many other nations, has banned cock fighting as a cruel sport, although traditional Tajen– Cockfighting in Bali is still allowed for ceremonial purposes.

The term bali refers to blood offerings and/or animal sacrifice. These fighting birds are as much a part of Balinese Hindu rites as the burning of incense and giving offerings to the gods.

In this Article

Scooters are parked in long rows. Curiosity lead us, following the sound of a cheering crowd did bring us to a gathering around a busy market and a small arena. There is a strange smell in the air. What is happening here?

Men are squatting in small groups, playing cards and smoking sweet rokok kretek. Only few local ladies are present: selling cigarettes, lawar – mixed vegetables and meat, grilled pork, chicken satay, snacks and colorful drinks.

The Sabung

Men have brought their own cocks ~ sabung, or have come to bet on them. The double meaning for “cock” is not a coincidence here.

Clifford James Geertz studied the Balinese cockfight and his essay “Deep Play – Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, on the meaning of the cockfight for the male participants he states:

That is that they identify with their cocks so much, that the bets, the big bet between the principals, is a laying of one’s public self, one’s masculinity, on the line. A man’s sabung–fighting rooster–is an extension of his virility and masculinity.

[Geertz argued that the cockfight served as a pastiche or model of wider Balinese society from which judgments about other aspects of the culture could be drawn].

It’s a symbol of his virility — the word ‘cock’ is a phallic synonym in Balinese, just as it is in English. It also means hero, warrior, bachelor and lady killer. To add insult to the looser, the winner gets to cook, the carcass of the losing bird. This is not just a trophy, but a delicacy — the adrenaline is supposed to enhance the flavor.

“Chicken curry tonight?” I thought, “NO”.

The sabung are stroked, massaged, combed, bathed in herbs and lukewarm water, their owners pick dirt or bugs from the feathers, and hand feed them the finest kernels of corn, one-by-one.

As Bill Dalton explains in his Bali Handbook:

“Fighting cocks are giving loving care—regularly massaged, bathed, bounced on the ground, and trained every day. Their feathers, combs, earlobes, and waffles are trimmed so that none provide a beak-hold for the opponent bird. The owner prepares a diet of specially selected grains and a mixture of chopped, grilled meat, and jackfruit, which is believed to thicken the blood—preventing serious bleeding—and to make the bird lean and little subject to fatigue, its sexual energies are directed only toward fighting, so the cock leads a celibate life except when breeding new fighters.”

Leading up to a fight, some roosters are even doped; injected with a concoction of pain-relieving drugs and strength-inducing steroids. In bigger fights, chili peppers are inserted into the anus or down the throat to rouse the rooster and give it a spark.

The Taji

The word for cockfight, tajen, comes from tajian, the taji being the blade. The blade itself and the way it is placed on the leg of the gamecock is an art and has to equal the chances of winning. The sharp steel spurs, are single blades, attached to one leg with a red string. Spurs are sharpened only at a dark moon and should not be seen by women. Lucky tanjis are sharpened during a lunar eclipse.

The Fight

Before any fight, opponents need to be matched. To ensure an equal and fair match, each match is officiated by a judge. The owners parade through the crowd with their roosters, approaching other birds to awaken the fighting spirit by teasing the cocks in front of each other. Sometimes it takes a while, but when there is some bite and opponents are found, the judge will announce the upcoming fight, the expert affix the spurs on one leg.

The loudest part of the fight then begins. The betting is roaring. After the bet master takes bets from the crowd, it looks like absolute chaos, small mountains of cash in the hands. Always smiling, the men start jumping, screaming and waving their hands. The whole mysterious process results in no records, no papers, no signatures – just men and their word and signs.

Artist: I Ketut Ginarsa

With all the bets are placed, it’s time for the cocks to be placed in the ring, there is the sound of the gong. When the gamecocks were released they advanced on one another, and then in a few moments of furious wing flapping and flailing, they assaulted one another. After that initial combat it was obvious that somehow one cock had inflicted a serious wound on the other one. It only took a bit more time for the cock to peck at its opponent and the wounded cock fell down, dead. Usually the one that lands the first bow lands another fatal blow- fast the fight is over.

The timekeeper sits at a desk, he pierces a coconut with a small hole and puts it in a bucket of water. It takes about 21 seconds to sink. At the start and end he beats a kulkul, a slit drum. During this time the cocks must be left alone. If they have not fought, they can be picked up and encouraged.

The process is repeated. If they still refuse to fight, both are put into a wicker cage and they always fight then. There are usually about nine or ten matches at one gathering.

Geertz, Clifford. “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973.

Clifford James Geertz’s description of a cockfight is quite poetic:

“Most of the time, in any case, the cocks fly almost immediately at one another in a wing-beating, head-thrusting, leg-kicking explosion of fury so pure, so absolute, and in its own way so beautiful, as to be almost abstract, a Platonic concept of hate. Within moments one or the other drives home a solid blow with his spur.”

As soon at the match ends, the birds are plucked and put in a plastic bag, the winner comes and collects the meet, with the Sampoerna in his mouth nervously exhaling the smoke. The Balinese have the utmost respect for their sabung that are brought home and eaten. Sometimes you find them on restaurant menus also.

The Traditional Tajen- Cockfighting in Balinese Culture

Cock fights are a brutal game created for sheer gambling pleasure. But if we think about the care and love that the animals received prior to their glory of being a gladiator in the ring, there is perhaps an interesting cultural phenomenon to explore.

The sport, or cultural performance, of cockfighting involves pitting evenly matched pairs of game fowl in competition in the presence of wagering, often until at least one of the birds is dead. As such, these events are part of a larger orbit of related sport or game like undertakings involving animal participation. Historically, such events may have been viewed as modes of mediation with the gods or methods of negotiating with unknown forces. In Balinese culture, honor and reputation are involved in the fights.

William Ingram begins his memoir of his experiences living with a Balinese family, “A Little Bit of One O’Clock”, describing the sounds of cocks crowing. He writes :

“I woke to the sound of roosters. There were hundreds of them. The nearest was right beside my room on the waist-high compound wall. Others scrabbled and crowed in a neighboring bamboo grove. The calls from across the whole village blended into a constant wailing.”

Clifford Geertz. La interpretación de las culturas. 1973.

Every morning. On the dot. Cock-a-doodle-doo. The crowing of roosters is one of the basic sounds of Bali. You hear them all the time, making their presence felt by their seemingly endless crowing.

You also see them at various sites, in wicker baskets by the roadside, that the Balinese have devised for them, waiting patiently for their brief moment of glory and almost inevitable death.

MYTHS: Gods, Roosters and cockfight

In Hindu scriptures:

Why Murugan has a rooster on his flag

Kanda Sashti: Murugan vanquishing Curapatman

In Hindu Mythology Kartikeya, the war-god known as Murugan is the son of Shiva and Parvati. In Southern India his varna is a peacock. This peacock was originally a demon called Surapadma, while the rooster was called the angel [Krichi]. After provoking Murugan in combat, the demon repented at the moment his lance descended upon him. He took the form of a tree and began to pray. The tree was cut in two.

From one half of the tree, Murugan pulled a rooster, which he made his emblem, and from the other, a peacock, which he made his mount.

Variant: Murugan and the rooster

The Kanda Puranam, the Tamil version of the Sanskrit Skanda Purana, retells the story of how Shiva’s son, Murugan, (known as Kartikeya, in North India) defeated the demon Taraka and his brothers, Simhamukhan and Surapadman. On his defeat, Simhamukhan begs forgiveness so Murugan instructs him to turn into a lion and serve as the vehicle of Durga. While fighting Murugan, Surapadman takes the form of a mountain. Murugan breaks the mountain into two with his spear. One part of the mountain turns into a peacock that becomes Murugan’s vehicle while the other part becomes a rooster that becomes Murugan’s symbol on his flag. Thus, says this narrative, the vehicles of Durga and her son, Murugan, are actually demons who have been subdued and transformed and become worthy of being associated with the divine.

The Cockfight in Mahabharata

Ramayana and Mahabharata reached Java along the trade routes by the first centuries CE and possibly much earlier. Main sources of the Indonesian version are the old Javanese epics and renderings, folk culture and Wayang puppet show. The Mahabharata narratives as found in present Wayang consist of folk-narratives developed by Wayang puppet-masters and bards over the ages, as also the narratives of Old Javanese Literature, which perhaps itself owes much to Folk-narratives.

The Mahabharata is an epic legendary narrative of the Kurukṣetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes. It also contains philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life”. Among the principal works and stories in the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the story of Ṛṣyasringa, often considered as lone works.

Arjuna is a religious-minded adventurer sometimes, he lives as an ascetic, sometimes he goes to remote places to learn from a guru or sometimes he meditates alone. Arjuna is also incarnation of Wisnu (Vishnu). The Indian version of Mahabharata portrays Arjuna as invincible in love and war. The Indonesian version makes him lose in both matters at least once, here good wins over bad:

Kangsa mama organizes a “cock fight” to eliminate Krishna-Balaram. Suratrimantra is his cock-fighter. He is sure, Kakrasana(Balaram) and Narayana should appear to see the fight. Then they would be killed. But in the thrilling fight the robust giant Suratrimantra is killed by Bratasena (young Bima). Kangsa is caught and assassinated by Permadi (Arjuna). This is indeed a great twist that Kansha is killed by Arjuna.

In Balinese Lontar:

The cockfight upon the Unseen World

~ Hooykaas

One of the great culture heroes of Bali is a prince, called after his passion for the sport, “The Cockfighter,” who happened to be away at a cockfight with a neighboring prince when the whole of his family-father, brothers, wives, sisters-were assassinated by commoner usurpers. Thus spared, he returned to dispatch the upstarts, regain the throne, reconstitute the Balinese high tradition, and build its most powerful, glorious, and prosperous state:

Alow caste Sudra, a generous, pious, and carefree man who is also an accomplished cock fighter, loses, despite his accomplishment, fight after fight until he is not only out of money but down to his last cock. He does not despair, however

“I bet,” he says, “upon the Unseen World.”

His wife, a good and hard-working woman, knowing how much he enjoys cockfighting, gives him her last “rainy day” money to go and bet. But, filled with misgivings due to his run of ill luck, he leaves his own cock at home and bets merely on the side. He soon loses all but a coin or two and repairs to a food stand for a snack, where he meets a decrepit, odorous, and generally unappetizing old beggar leaning on a staff. The old man asks for food, and the hero spends his last coins to buy him some. The old man then asks to pass the night with the hero, which the hero gladly invites him to do. As there is no food in the house, however, the hero tells his wife to kill the last cock for dinner. When the old man discovers this fact, he tells the hero he has three cocks in his own mountain hut and says the hero may have one of them for fighting. He also asks for the hero’s son to accompany him as a servant, and, after the son agrees, this is done.

The old man turns out to be Shiva and, thus, to live in a great palace in the sky, though the hero does not know this. In time, the hero decides to visit his son and collect the promised cock. Lifted up into Siva’s presence, he is given the choice of three cocks. The first crows: “I have beaten fifteen opponents.” The second crows, “I have beaten twenty-five opponents.” The third crows,

“I have beaten the king.””That one, the third, is my choice,” says the hero, and returns with it to earth.

When he arrives at the cockfight, he is asked for an entry fee and replies, “I have no money; I will pay after my cock has won.” As he is known never to win, he is let in because the king, who is there fighting, dislikes him and hopes to enslave him when he loses and cannot pay off. In order to insure that this happens, the king matches his finest cock against the hero’s. When the cocks are placed down, the hero’s flees, and the crowd, led by the arrogant king, hoots in laughter. The hero’s cock then flies at the king himself, killing him with a spur stab in the throat. The hero flees. His house is encircled by the king’s men. The cock changes into a Garuda, the great mythic bird of Indic legend, and carries the hero and his wife to safety in the heavens.

When the people see this, they make the hero king and his wife queen and they return as such to earth. Later their son, released by Siva, also returns and the hero-king announces his intention to enter a hermitage.

“I will fight no more cockfights. I have bet on the Unseen and won.”

He enters the hermitage and his son becomes king.

Lontar – Palm-Leaf Manuscript Gedong Kirtya, Singaraja


Roosters and chicken in Balinese rituals

Balinese offerings

For Balinese Hindus, Yajnas,, lies in various types of oblations: billowing clouds of incense, spreading fragrance of flowers and incense, mantras of worship chanted by priests, vocal of psalmody, lively gamelan music, and wayang plays and various other religious art attractions, but Balinese gods and goddesses take on terrible forms and are bloodthirsty at times.

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.

Religious faith is still a very active part of the Balinese people’s lives, and temples, shrines and sidewalks bloomed with hundreds of fresh flower offerings every day.

No less important is a class of spirits that are impish, lustful, impetuous, greedy, unpredictable, and capable of causing harm to those who interfere with them. These lower spirits that live on or near the ground have a variety of names and characteristics, butakala. As with all spirits they are ambivalent; their behavior toward man is a function of how they are treated. They are just as capable of helping and protecting their human neighbors as they are of causing sickness, accidents, or the loss of a prized possession. But they want animal offerings.

Whenever there is an important Balinese Hindu ceremony, there should be a blood sacrifice made to the local butakala to win their cooperation and support. Such a ceremony might range from a rite of passage, to the anniversary celebration of a temple or shrine, to the purification of an area that is known to be adversely affected by butakala. At such a time a cockfight is legal, and, in fact, a requirement.

The term bali refers to blood offerings and/or animal sacrifice


Various Hindu rituals in Bali often use animal flesh as an offering that has an almost equal position to flowers in oblations. For example, peras oblation must contain grilled chicken otherwise they are not considered complete. As written in the Rig Veda:

“what is on the grilled meat, oil and the meat itself should not be thrown onto the grass, offer it to the gods”.

Balinese Hinduism is based on the concept of Tri Hita Karana, the belief that there should be balanced relationships between man and God, man and all other people, and man and nature. Yajnas, or holy sacrifices, are made to sustain the balance and the various types of holy sacrifices are each meant to address a particular subject. Bhuta Yadnya is the holy sacrifice meant to maintain the balance between man and nature and is important because it is in nature (the natural world) that bad spirits are believed to most often reside. Bhu literally translates from Balinese to English as the word ‘nature‘. So keeping Bhuta, also known as bhuta kalas or kalas ,(or the bad spirits in nature) from becoming troublesome to man is accomplished by showing respect and give sacrifices.

Offerings are normally given to beings from the underworld by laying them on the ground. This stems from the belief that demonic beings reside in the underworld below us. The simplest offering, consist of rice and banana leafs. Among the more elaborate offerings includes blood or flesh collected from sacrificial animals.

“When I ask why chicken is the sacrificial animal of choice, he pauses. … the pedanda begins, because they scratch around in the earth and will eat anything they can find. This makes them suitable for feeding demons but not heavenly deities…”

The chicken is also a symbol of creation or rajas (passion, active, confused) and the body.

“Hinduism in Bali is most ancient. Here we practice Tantric Saiva Siddhanta, as opposed to the Vedantic Saiva Siddhanta of India. Most of our temples are tantric, and that is the reason we carry out animal sacrifice.” He elaborated on the local customs: “We follow Durga and Shiva, who are two sides of the same coin. We worship Durga if we want something magical. She is extremely popular in Bali, and every home worships Her every fifteen days with animal sacrifice. Every hundred years we have to perform the Ekadasa Rudra festival in which more than 200 kinds of animals are offered.”

~ Lawler Andrew. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. 2016.

For ordinary exorcism at temple ceremonies, sacrifices of smaller animals such as ducks, chickens, roosters and baby chickens may suffice. On special occasions dogs, cows, water buffaloes and about 300 turtles a year are also necessary to complete certain rituals and pigs are given as offerings too. Read more

The cock is also often used in Balinese rituals, as a symbol for rajah or passion.

Ida Pedanda Made Gunung, the High Priest for Balinese Hindu Community, says:

“According to Manawa Dharmasastra, animals that are sacrificed in such ceremonies will be incarnated into higher level in the next life. And people who sacrifice those animals also will have higher level in the next life because they help them to get a better life in the next”

Babayuhan rituals

Manusha yadnya activities like babayuhan (exorcism rites) use chicken. In the case of an inauspicious birth where the pawukon- based birthday (otonan) coincides with full moon, a redemption by bebayuhan must be performed using a white chicken dedicated to Shiva Raditya but if the birth coicides with the new moon a black chicken is used and is to be offered to the Goddess Ratih.

“Chickens in the bebayuhan ritual will be roasted or steamed because after the ritual the chicken meat will be enjoyed by the person for whom the exorcism rite is conducted”,

Mecaru ceremonies

Cockfights, which in Balinese are known as tajen, meklecan or ngadu, are required at temples for purification ~ mecaru ceremonies.

The Mecaru ceremony is a sacred ritual that is often held to harmonize the relationship between humans and the surrounding environment. Aiming to create mutual understanding and relationships that are conducive to the sustainability of the next life. In order to perform the mecaru ceremony humans can live in peace, harmony, between man and nature. Caru meaning beautiful, or harmonious.

Mecaru is the act of giving offerings comprised of flowers and food. The offerings that are made especially to please Bhuta contain shrimp paste, which has a very strong and unpleasant odor, ginger, onion, and raw meat. Drinks to Bhuta that accompany the offering include traditional alcoholic beverages like arak or brem. Also offerings such as meat, chicken, cow and buffalo are involved, depending on the degree of the Mecaru. Methods for sacrificing range from decapitation, strangulation, to a spike being driven into the heart of the animal.


Nyepi. Once a year, at the spring equinox, every community holds a general cleaning-out of Bhuta, driving them out of the village with magical curses and rioting by the entire population. This is followed by a day of absolute stillness, the suspension of all activity, from which the ceremony takes its name. Nyepi marks they New Year and the arrival of spring, the end of the troublesome rainy season, when even the earth is said to be sick and feverish (panas) . It is believed that then the Lord of Hell, Yama, sweeps Hades of devils, which fall on Bali, making it imperative that the whole of the island be purified.

There is great excitement all over Bali at this time, and on the days before nyepi everybody is busy erecting altars for the offerings and scaffolds for the priests at the village crossroads. The celebration extends over a period of two days: the metjaru, the great purification offering, and nyepi, the day of silence. On the first day the Government allows unrestricted gambling and cockfighting, an essential part of the ceremony, because the land is cured by spilling blood over impure earth.

The Tabuh Rah- Ritual- Spilling blood

Geertz Hildred. The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village. 2004.

The Tabuh Rah- ritual to expel evil spirits always has a cockfight to spill the blood, Tabah Rah literally means pouring blood. The spilling of blood to the earth is needed to expel Bhuta, because their blood is believed to appease the bad natur spirits, so they don’t disturb people, but eventually this ritual is shifted to become entertainment.

There are ancient texts disclosing that the ritual has existed for centuries. It is mentioned in the Batur Bang Inscriptions I from the year 933 and the Batuan Inscription from the year 944- Balinese calendar. The blood of the loser spills on the ground, an offering to the evil spirits. Three cockfights are necessary for this purpose. Ritual fights usually take place outside the temple and follow an ancient and complex ritual. Only men participate. Women do not even watch.

This statue is a part of Pura Puseh at Pura Desa Batuan and shows the deity Ida Ratu Saung may be seen with a fighting cock in his hand.

A cockfight is an offering, a sacred matter. The rules are written down also in the ancient lontar palm books, called lamas pengayam ayaman, which are village heirlooms. Before the cockfight begins and at the end, a pemangku priest will present offerings to the nature spirits and also the gods.

Spilled blood is also considered a sacrifice that will bring good crops. Animist beliefs extend to the rooster and the cockfight,

”a popular form of fertility worship among almost all Southeast Asians”.

The gambling at the traditional Tajen- Cockfighting

To the Balinese cockfighting is much more than a religious ritual. Raffles in his “History of Java” commented,

their predominant passions are gaming and cockfighting. In these amusements, when at peace with the neighbouring states, all the vehemence and energy of their character and spirit is called forth and exhausted.”

In pre- colonial times cockfights were normally held on market days. The ring is usually near the market in the wantilan in the centre of the village. The fights were taxed and the taxation was a major source of revenue for the princes, who were patrons of the fights.

There is an anecdote about a Javanese official who was employed by the Dutch government. When asked by the Dutch authorities to take action against illegal cockfights, he did not want to betray his own people and refused to do so. Instead, he proposed to castrate the cocks so that they would not wish to fight. No one paid any attention to the new rule because the men felt that if they castrated their cocks, they themselves would be castrated as well.

Through the placement of bets for fights, the conflicts become outspoken (I bet against your cock), apologies are then made and accepted by others (I bet for your cock) and alliances are formed (We bet together against them). Defeat is accepted with the same dignity as glory brings to a win.

Gambling seems to be a necessary part of the cockfight, even if prohibited by low. There are two sorts of bet:

Between the principals

This bet is usually large and arranged quietly between collectives of mates, including the owner backing his own bird. The winner takes his bet and also gets to keep the body of the beaten bird. Out of the takings about 10 per cent is paid to the umpire and the sponsors of the fight. If there is no winner a draw is declared.

Between members of the audience

The side betting takes place after the center bet has been concluded. These side bets are usually small. They are between individuals, who yell and gesture to each other from their positions in the audience. The bets are always odd. The odds are 10-9, 9-8, 8-7, 7-6, 6-5, 5-4, 4-3, 3-2, and 2-1.

The gambler wanting to back the underdog, not the favorite, shouts the short-side number of the odds he wants to be given by someone else. So, if he wants four to three, he shouts three, which means he puts up three. On the other hand, a person wanting to back the favorite shouts out the fact by yelling the color of the bird, brown, speckled, or whatever.

The men search for a suitable partner in the audience. The man backing the underdog indicates how large a bet he wishes to make with a number of fingers in front of his face. If his partner does the same, the contract is concluded and the bet is made. The number of fingers is the multiple of the underdog’s bid, so, for example, two fingers in a 6-5 bid means 2×5, that 10000 rupiah is bet against 12000. All bets are settled immediately after the fight.

The illegality of Gambling in Cockfights

Gambling in cockfights are illegal in Bali. The compromise between Balinese authorities and the central government was to allow the fights only for religious ceremonies, but ban gambling, as it is frowned upon by the Islamic values that are prevalent in the central government.

Although some cockfights are allowed for Hindu ceremonies, it is generally spurned by the Indonesian public. Accordingly, cockfights are hidden away, out of sight of the authorities and tourists. But the people and the government have reached an unspoken compromise: cockfighting and gambling can continue, so long as everyone pretends it doesn’t exist.

John Lunsford writes:

Its significance as a ritual, a piece of heritage, a mechanism for exploring social relations holds fast, but as an evolving society the Balinese have added to it. Amongst those other things, the Balinese have integrated a whiff of discontent, the barest scent of rebellion, of opposition to the tourist ethos and the false reality. The cockfight was not preserved solely for ceremony, ritual, or heritage’s sake (although those are certainly weighty influences on its continued maintenance) but also for its representation as being squarely in opposition to a false reality.”

Bali has learnt to market itself as a new-age nirvana, but this idyllic image isn’t much older than the people who come here in search of love and peace. The island has a very bloody history, in which mass killing is often read as the divinely ordained consequence of impurity.

The Dutch didn’t conquer the island until 1908, where upon hundreds of Balinese committed mass suicide. When it became clear the Balinese royals could no longer hold off the Dutch, they chose to die rather than submit to colonial rule. Under the now legendary puputan, the royal family ordered their palaces to be set alight. Then clad in white and armed only with spears they and some of their supporters hurled themselves at the Dutch, maybe a thousand died in fight. The Dutch gained controlled of the island.

With the bloody civil war of the 1960s, estimations of 500,000 to over one million islanders were slaughtered during state-sponsored purges of suspected Communists and their sympathizers. After the Japanese occupation of Bali in World War II, there was fighting between those who supported Indonesian independence and those who favored a continuation of Dutch colonial rule. One Balinese resistance movement, in the tradition of pupatan chose to be wiped out rather than surrender at the Battle of Margarana. Bali’s airport, Ngurah Rai, Is named after the group’s leader.

The government directed international campaigns through magazines and other literature to reinvent Bali as an island paradise, instituted propaganda campaigns across the island to suppress both the discussion of violence and the aspects of Balinese culture that threatened to interfere with the reimagined and idyllic version of Bali (i.e. social or cultural institutions deemed controversial or distasteful, such as the cockfight), and sculpted the landscape by selling plots of land that housed mass graves for hotels to be built on or for other construction projects.

Cockfighting feels like a link with Bali “disobedience” to Jakarta payed with the mass-tourists cash.

On the History of Cockfighting

There is some consensus that the cock itself (and perhaps the cockfight) may have originated in southeast Asia or the Indus valley.

The earliest recorded cockfight in China dates from 517 BC, which would make cockfighting at least 2500 years old. The match was held in Confucius‘ home province of Lu during the philosopher’s lifetime. Zuo zhuan (Zuo’s Commentary), Zhao 25, says:

When the cocks of Ji and Hou fought, Ji put mustard on his gamecock, while Hou made metal spurs for his. [Ji] Pingzi was incensed.

The earliest unequivocal evidence of cockfighting in the West comes from this same era. In a tomb just outside Jerusalem, excavators found an early image of a fighting rooster on the seal of Jaazania.

The antiquity of cockfighting in India is attested by a specific reference in the Kama Sutra (3d century AD), Chapter 2 of Part 1, where young women are advised to study some sixty-four arts, of which number 41 includes “The rules of cockfighting,” the clear implication being that a woman would be more pleasing to men who are vitally interested in such activities.

In Persia, the sport goes back 6,000 years in Persia and the term “Persian bird” for the cock or fighting cock, is thought to have been given by the Greeks after Persian contact “because of his great importance and his religious use among the Persians”.

It is however noted that even long before that time, in Iran, during the Kianian Period, from about 2000 BC to about 700 BC, “the cock was the most sacred” bird.

It is also thought that cockfighting has its origin in the Indus Valley Civilization, and spread from South Asia after the Persian armies conquered India in the 4th century BC The Persians adopted the sport and are thought to be at least partly responsible for its introduction to the Mediterranean basin through military and commercial pursuits. The sea-faring Phoenicians are also thought to be responsible for the widespread distribution of game fowl from the orient to Africa, the Middle East, and along the European coast

From Iran -Persia cockfighting moved to Greece.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2008) holds:

The sport was popular in ancient times in India, China, Persia, and other Eastern countries and was introduced into Ancient Greece in the time of Themistocles (c. 524–460 BC). For a long time the Romans affected to despise this “Greek diversion”, but they ended up adopting it so enthusiastically that the agricultural writer Columella (1st century AD) complained that its devotees often spent their whole patrimony in betting at the side of the pit.

And from there to Rome, as mosaics attest, where it diffused to Western Europe and thence to the Caribbean. The cock may have come to the New World as early as the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493.

The cockfight, however, is not universal, as it seems never to have spread to any great extent to native North and South America or to sub-Saharan Africa.

LEGEND: Cockfighting

This legend comes from Banten.

Cockfight by Kusama Affandi on artnet

Once upon a time, there was a king. He was very rich and had great power. However he was not happy, his only child, the prince, was not a good son. The prince had bad attitudes, like cockfighting and gambling. Every time the prince had a cock fighting, he also ignored his father’s advice.

Until one day, the king could not hold it anymore. He asked the prince to leave the palace and to live in the jungle.

The prince knew it was his punishment and left the palace to the jungle. He had never been to the jungle before and was very confused not knowing where to stay.

While he was busy looking for a place to stay, he found a hut. Happy he immediately knocked the door, a beautiful girl opened. She was an orphan, her parents just passed away and now she was living alone. The prince fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. The girl agreed and later they got married. The prince and his wife had a happy life. They got even happier when the wife was pregnant.

The prince worked harder, wanting to give the best to his baby. When the prince was working in the field, he heard that his father, the king, died. And now there was no king in the palace. The prince rushed to the palace. When his wife asked to join him, the prince forbade her.

The wife was sad. She was pregnant and she was alone in the jungle. While she was sitting and waiting for the husband, and eagle flew above her. The eagle dropped an egg. It was a chicken egg. She kept the egg. And when she delivered a baby son, the egg also hatched.

She named her son Panji Kelaras. While she was working, Panji Kelaras always played with his chick, which soon grew as a cock. Meanwhile, Panji Kelaras father now was the king. However, the king did fall in his bad behavior again.

He liked to do cock fighting. The king’s cock always won the fights. He was not satisfied, he made a competition of cockfighting and the prize was a bag of gold. Many people brought their cocks and fought them with the king’s cock. No cock could beat the king’s cock.

Pnji Kelaras heard about the competition. He asked his mother’s permission to go the palace. She gave him her blessing. She let her son go to the palace because she wanted him to meet his father, the king. When Panji Kelaras arrived at the palace he immediately gave his cock to the soldiers.

Soon, the cocks were fighting. Finally, Panji Kelaras cock won, he was very happy. The king kept his promise. He gave Panji Kelaras a bag of gold. When Panji Kelaras left the palace, the king secretly followed him. The king was surprised when Panji Kelaras went to the hut he used to stay with his wife. And he was more surprised when he saw his wife hugged Panji Kelaras.

Who is he?” asked the king. He was jealous.

“He is you son. Where were you? I was waiting for you for a long time but you never came back,” said his wife.

The king regretted his mistake, apologized to his wife and to his son, and asked them to stay in the palace with him. And when the king died, Panji Kelaras became the king, he led the kingdom wisely.

LEGEND: I Tuhung Kuning

The extremes to which gambling madness is conceived on occasion to go – and the fact that it is considered madness – is demonstrated by the Balinese folk tale I Tuhung Kuning.

Agambler becomes so deranged by his passion that, leaving on a trip, he orders his pregnant wife to take care of the prospective newborn if it is a boy but to feed it as meat to his fighting cocks if it is a girl.

The mother gives birth to a girl, but rather than giving the child to the cocks she gives them a large rat and conceals the girl with her own mother.

When the husband returns, the cocks, crowing a jingle, inform him of the deception and, furious, he sets out to kill the child.

A goddess descends from heaven and takes the girl up to the skies with her.

The cocks die from the food given them, the owner’s sanity is restored, the goddess brings the girl back to the father, who reunites him with his wife.

The story is given as “Geel Komkommertje” in J. Hooykaas-van Leeuwen Boomkamp, Sprookjes en Verhalen van Bali (The Hague, 1956), pp. 19-25. in The Interpretation of Cultures by Clifford Geertz.

Cocks in Balinese language and sayings

Sabung, the word for cock (and one which appears in inscriptions as early as AD 922), is used metaphori­cally to mean “hero,” “warrior,” “champion,” “man of parts,” “politi­cal candidate,” “bachelor,” “dandy,””lady-killer,” or “tough guy.”

A pompous man whose behavior presumes above his station is compared to a tailless cock who struts about as though he had a large, spectacular one.

A desperate man who makes a last, irrational effort to extricate himself from an impossible situation is likened to a dying cock who makes one final lunge at his tormentor to drag him along to a common destruction.

A stingy man, who promises much, gives little, and begrudges that is compared to a cock which, held by the tail, leaps at another without in fact engaging him.

A marriageable young man still shy with the opposite sex or someone in a new job anxious to make a good impression is called “a fighting cock caged for the first time.” ~ C. Hooykaas, The Lay of the Jaya Prana has a stanza (no. 17)

[..] with the reluctant bridge groom use. Jaya Prana, the subject of a Balinese Uriah myth, responds to the lord who has offered him the loveliest of six hundred servant girls:

“Godly King, my Lord and Master

I beg you, give me leave to go

such things are not yet in my mind;

like a fighting cock encaged

indeed I am on my mettle

I am alone

as yet the flame has not been fanned.”

Court trials, wars, political contests, inheritance disputes, and street arguments are all compared to cockfights.

Even the very island itself is perceived from its shape as a small, proud cock, poised, neck extended, back taut, tail raised, in eternal challenge to large, feckless, shapeless Java. There is a legend to the effect that the separation of Java and Bali is due to the action of a powerful Javanese religious figure who wished to protect himself against a Balinese culture hero (the ancestor of two Ksatria castes) who was a passionate cockfighting gambler.

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We would like it to be known that in no way do we condone cruelty to animals or endorse acts of violence towards animals

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Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
  • Animal Sacrifice in Bali-Hindu’s Rituals.
  • Bandyopadhyay Indrajit.Variations in Indonesian Mahabharata.
  • Bronner,Simon J. Gallus as Phallus: A Psychoanalytic Cross-Cultural Consideration of the Cockfight as Fowl Play, in: Meaning of Folklore. The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes. 2007. 15 Gallus as Phallus: A Psychoanalytic Cross-Cultural Consideration of the Cockfight as Fowl Play
  • Cockfight. Wikipedia article.
  • Copeland Jonathan, Murni Ni Wayan. Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light on the Morning of the World. E-book.
  • Dalton, Bill. Bali Handbook. 1997.
  • Donder I Ketut, in The essence of animal sacrifice in Balinese Hindu ritual: Discourse around Theological, Philosophical, Mythological, Ritual and Scientific Phenomena. 2012.
  • Fuller, C. J. The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Revised and Expanded Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004.
  • Geertz, Clifford. “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973.
  • Ingram, William. A Little Bit of One O’Clock. 1998.
  • Jaazaniah. Wikipedia article.
  • Lawler Andrew. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. 2016.
  • Legend found on: Indonesian Folklore.
  • Reflections from a Balinese Cockfight: Conflicted Realities in Post-Conflict Bali.
  • Riding the Beast.
  • Some Uses of Animals in Hinduism, To Fill Oblations and Caru Rituals.
  • The Island Of Bali, Indonesia. Rites and festivals. GODS AND DEMONS: OFFERINGS AND EXORCISMS.
  • Vahana.