Buffalo racing in West Bali
Need to know
Buffalo races often get really bloody, and can be quite upsetting for animal lovers. If you're interested in seeing the races but would rather avoid the bloodshed, get there early. Know this, though: racing buffaloes are cherished, and apart from the Sunday races they live a charmed life: they aren't worked in the paddies, and will be well fed and cared for.
On any Sunday morning between July and October you will see garishly decorated chariots on their way to one race meeting or another on the outskirts of Negara town in Western Bali. The Bupati Cup takes place in August and is named after the head of the Jembrana district government, while the Governor’s Cup (October) is dedicated to the head of the Bali provincial government.
Organised races usually start at 8am but local training runs might often begin earlier. It is also recommended to arrive in advance as the preparation of the racing teams is an unforgettable part of the spectacle.
Puri Dajuma Cottages in Pekutatan offers unforgettable beachfront accommodation at the edge of Jembrana district and can arrange guided tours to the buffalo races (combined with a visit to a nearby turtle conservation programme).
A victorious charioteer crosses the finishing line and two sweating buffalo skid to a standstill as he hauls back on the reins. As the cheering crowd closes around, offering congratulations, the charioteer suddenly and inexplicably begins flailing at
his bulls with renewed vigour.
The nail-spiked wooden cosh that is the jockey’s ‘whip’ hovers over the heads of the crowd for a moment. Then it slams down on a blood-spattered rump and the buffaloes jump forward, on the verge of charging into the crowd. Drivers and bystanders rush forward to restrain the bulls while two men leap onto the chariot. They clutch at the charioteer’s arms and, before he can raise his club again, they to drag him down onto the ground.
The young rider has clearly been taken over by a will that is not his own his attackers struggle to pry the club from his clenched fist. In the moment before he passed out entirely I catch an unnerving glimpse of the young man’s eyes. They are glazed and wild.
My Balinese guide answers my stunned questioning look with a shrug. “It’s a common emotional reaction,” he smiles, “the rider was just possessed by speed craze.”
I have a feeling that I’ve been given a fleeting insight into what the old Malay word amok really means.
I have travelled to Bali’s wild western Jembrana district to witness one of the most unusual traditions to be found even in this unique island of mystery and romance. Jembrana is primarily an agricultural region where the rice-farming way of life has changed little over the centuries. This most traditional part of the Island of the Gods is known for the water buffalo that work the paddy fields and for the Javanese-style wooden carts that are still used to carry produce and supplies. Some say that mekepung – a form of buffalo-chariot racing that is seen nowhere else in the world – was first introduced to the region by Madurese immigrants to celebrate the end of the rice harvest. Essentially, however, the sport evolved as the natural outcome of the farmer’s perennial race to get his produce to market.
The races typically take place shortly after sunrise any Sunday between July and October and they invariably transform the mist-shrouded paddyfields and sleepy kampongs into a particularly reckless and hair-raising Balinese version of Ben Hur.
Above the din of clattering chariot wheels you hear the maniacal sound of what appears to be an Apache war-whoop. A herd of galloping bulls, driven by wild figures brandishing heavy wooden coshes, charge towards you like a barbarian horde intent on some diabolical massacre. Flags billows like battle-standards and carved wooden dragons rear up between pairs of cloth-covered horns. Balancing precariously on their lightweight racing platforms, like over-sized dinner trays, the riders will gallop along the several kilometres of rutted dirt-tracks at speeds of up to sixty kilometres an hour. Inexplicably the charioteers manage to stay on their feet while they flail at the massive leathery rumps and in an instant the crazily bucking chariots have thundered past.
At its most dramatic these two-buffalo-power two-wheel-drives with their speed-crazed charioteers are capable of making the international rally circuit look positively tame.
Tournaments progress with two or three chariots racing at a time and excitement hits fever pitch when chariots are fighting neck-and-neck for the limited space of a single dirt-track. It is not uncommon for racers, vehicles and animals to take a tumble into the mud of the paddies or to veer off track into the thick of the ranks of squatting spectators. Mekepung is not a sport to be taken lightly: serious injuries and even death among racers (and occasionally spectators) are not unheard of.
On major race days teams may be up much of the night preparing their animals and vehicles. Offerings are made in front of countless family temples and hours of prayers are said for the success of the team and the safety of the riders and bulls. Hooves are oiled, harnesses are waxed and horns are carefully bound in silk ribbons (although these days less wealthy racers will often make do with striped football socks). The chariots are often beautifully carved antiques, adorned with carved dragons and snake carvings. Other rearing dragons rise up from the yokes that extend between the heads of the two animals and a flowing pennant trails out, like a battle standard, when the chariot enters into ‘battle.’ There are fine black bulls with scarlet tassels draped over their lyre-shaped horns, and white bulls – so sparsely covered in hair that they are actually pink – that are decked with golden crowns mirrors and bells. These white bulls are particularly sought after and owners might pay as much as US$3,000 for the perfect match to a good bull.
At about two hundred kilograms the buffalo are substantially smaller than the heavy agricultural buffalo that plough the paddy fields. But they are never used for work. Instead, they are nurtured and protected for a life that (apart from the nail-studded cosh) is a relatively privileged one. Studies have shown that the strength of these racing bloodlines has led to a breed of buffalo that is resistant to many of the diseases that infect Bali’s thousands of draft buffalo.
As the tournament draws to a close I wander back to the finish line to meet my friend Wayan Cisdema. The ex-soldier turned buffalo-owner is happy with his team’s performance.
As with the local penchant for cockfighting, betting is a big part of the sport and a fair amount of money has already changed hands among the gambling contingent in the audience. Although Wayan says that he races primarily for fun his bulls are worth more money in stud fees with every race that they win.
I ask Wayan why the backs of his bulls are so ostentatiously devoid of the splattered blood that seems almost to be a part of the colourful costume of a racing buffalo. What I really want to hear of course, as an animal-loving westerner, is that Wayan prohibits excessive use of the jockey’s cosh.
But the team manager is coldly logical: “They were already very fast,” he shrugs, “so it wasn’t necessary. Lebih cepat, kurang darah.”
It sounds like an equation that the tough-looking 40-year-old captain may have picked up from some boot-camp training session. And he seems to like the sound of it.
“More fast, less blood,” he says again.