Saturday, July 27, 2013

Reflections from a Balinese Cockfight: Conflicted Realities in Post-Conflict Bali

Balinese cock pre-cockfight.  Photo by John Lunsford.
In the late days of June of 2011, I arrived in Bali, Indonesia excited yet diffident. A graduate student entering my second year of study I was anxious for the opportunity to venture out of the books and try my hand at ethnography. As I stepped out of the airport amidst a swarm of vocal freelance cabbies and exuberant self-appointed luggage handlers – my luggage seemed to have acquired the habit of wandering off, only to be halted, half-shoved into the open window-door-trunk of someone’s vehicle – I quickly realized that this may not be Bali I had read about, the Bali I expected.

Four weeks into research I found myself in an enlightening situation. Wings beat furiously at the air and I stood transfixed at the events in front of me, Geertz’s Notes on a Balinese Cockfight (2000) in one hand – figuratively, it was actually in my backpack – and my camera filming a Balinese cockfight in the other. A flash of steel leaked through a shifting cluster of tousled feathers and was just as quickly gone. Immediately, both roosters were swiftly scooped up, each owner deftly avoiding the small razor sharp spur affixed to their roosters’ leg.

To those knowledgeable enough to understand the ebb and flow of a Balinese cockfight, such a flurry of wingbeats nearly always signified momentum. A forward progression in the match culminated in a mortal blow and the inevitable expiration of one or both roosters. When the cocks are engaged, the observing crowd is generally quiet, the silence is punctuated by eruptions of noise upon the match’s conclusion as bets are paid, casualty and winner alike extricated from the ring, new bargains negotiated, and the ritual of the match is set to begin anew with different opponents.

Those attending exhibited a demure behavior, a phenomena not unknown to Geertz who observed that “those not immediately involved give it at best but disguised; sidelong attention; those who, embarrassedly, are, attempt to pretend somehow that the whole thing is not really happening” (Geertz 2000: 421). Despite the reserved nature with which attendance at a cockfight was acknowledged, one aged man I briefly conversed with admitted that he had attended cockfights since he was a child, lending the ceremony a sense of uninterrupted longevity that spanned decades.

Though a communal event, observing a cockfight is a relatively solitary experience. As Geertz noted, the mass of people gathered was “not vertebrate enough to be called a group and not structureless enough to be called a crowd”, a form who’s description he borrowed Goffman as a “focused gathering” (Geertz 2000: 424). While observing this focused gathering I encountered a group of three comprised of an elderly man, his son, a middle aged man, standing behind him, and atop the son’s shoulders sat his son, to whom the cockfight was being explained. The degree to which knowledge of the cockfight was passed from grandfather to father I cannot attest, however, as both proceeded to explain the intricacies of the cockfight’s rules and betting scheme to the youngest member of the party, the importance of passing such information was evident. Unlike the first man who attended cockfights alone for many years, the multi-generational presence demonstrated a keen desire to not just participate in but also to have knowledge of the ceremony extend past the scope of their own lives.

What struck me about this situation was how preserved the ritual of the cockfight was, with its center bets, side bets, and outlying smaller games, a gong to sound the beginning and end of a match, and a slowly sinking punctured coconut to delimit the time in which the cocks had to initiate an engagement; how the structure and operation had remained so similar over the last four decades insofar as I had understood it as described by Geertz. The more I watched the cockfight and watched those watching it, the more I realized that it was preserved because the Balinese wanted it preserved. The cockfight as a communal event had remained a mechanism through which Balinese society could be understood; the creation and maintenance of relationships, religion, public behavior, and social roles and responsibilities was as applicable now as it had been during Geertz’s research.

This insight was particularly interesting because, despite their documented significance, cockfights were illegal and viewed by the government as ”primitive,” “backward,” “unprogressive,” and generally “unbecoming an ambitious nation” (Geertz 2000: 414). Yet they occurred with a frequency that belied their supposed unimportance and furthermore were considered integral to “the Balinese Way of Life” (Geertz 2000: 414). The significance of the cockfight extended beyond flimsy assertions of addiction or deviance – Geertz has already published an extensive account identifying “addict gamblers” that participate in the cockfights as declassed fringe dwellers, and to reduce the meaning of the cockfight to be deviance for deviance’s sake undervalues and vastly oversimplified its symbolic importance (2000: 445). Therefore, how can something as symbolically saturated or dense as the cockfight be so discouraged as to be declared illegal by the government and yet simultaneously its observance intrinsic to the way the Balinese choose to negotiate their everyday social reality?

The incongruity between the socio-cultural importance of the cockfight and the government’s refusal to recognize it as such and subsequent attempts to abolish or extinguish its practice was in fact representative of a larger discordant relationship. It was illegal for the Balinese to represent themselves in a way that challenged the image of Bail the government had created, an image that had been specifically shaped to both mask a terrible act of violence perpetrated against the Balinese people during the massacre of 1965-1966 and simultaneously shape Bail into a financially prominent and successful tourist destination (Robinson 2005).

Between September 30, 1965 and the early months of 1966 estimations of 500,000 to over one million people across Indonesia were killed and the island of Bali bore witness to some of the largest occurrences of violence, though the an accurate account of the loss of life is still unknown (Cribb 1990). While the relationship between civil society and the government had been contentious prior to the massacres due to the regime’s fears of communist uprisings, the violence acted as a catalyst that ignited conflict in an already inflamed situation (Robinson 2006). The violence of the 1965 massacres did nothing to resolve the issues between many Balinese and their government and instead “deepened” (Geertz 2000:283) existing conflicts. The government’s new political leader Suharto, a military general-turned president, instituted reform during and after the conflict that further suppressed Balinese civil society while reshaping its cultural and geographic landscape in an effort to mask the atrocities his regime committed and globally reinvented Bali as an idyllic tourist destination (Robinson 2005, Kammen and McGregor 2012).

In the wake of the violence, the newly empowered regime implemented campaigns which simultaneously attempted to scrub the atrocities of 1965 and 1966 from literary and verbal histories as well as reshape the geographical face of Bali, acts which were conducted under the guise making the island a more appealing destination for tourists (Cribb 1990, Robinson 2005). 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 (Tumarkin 2005).

These campaigns objectified the Balinese and served to inhibit their ability to grow as a society (Robinson 2005). It forced them into an identity, created to both silence them and profit from them; one that dictated which parts of their own culture were worth preserving and attempted to force them to abandon ones that did not fit in this ideal, even if they still held meaning. As a result, the Balinese were forced to contend with the government (and its supporters) for the definition of their own reality, of what it meant to be Balinese, rather than what they were told it meant to be Balinese. In his final research visit to Bali in 1971, Geertz had noted that “the half-suppressed memory of events will perpetuate and infinitely widen the gulf between the process of government and the struggle for the real” (Geertz 2000: 325). Dissatisfied at being silenced, and objects for profit, the Balinese have created a reality true to themselves. The real, as Geertz referred to it, is a reality constructed by the Balinese to maintain the traditions that are important, to challenge the institution that confined them, and afforded themselves an opportunity to grow as a society.

The cockfight is a perfect example for this. While the ritual of the cockfight has remained the same since Geertz’s research, as has its ability to be used to conceptualize important social and cultural aspects of Balinese society, its meaning has evolved. 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.

John Lunsford


Cribb, Robert. 1990. The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali. Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 2000 [1973]. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Kammen, Douglas. and Katharine McGregor. 2012. The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965-68. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Robinson, Geoffery. 2005. The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Tumarkin, Maria. 2005. Traumascapes: The power and Fate of Places Transformed by Tragedy. Maria. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.


John said...

Nice observation of meaning altered by changing context while form is preserved — defiantly.

Anonymous said...

Pretentious Rubbish. It seems that you have fixed Balinese culture as essentially being in support and continuing cockfigthing. In short being Balinese is having cockfights. Anyone else who doesn't like it in your article is implicitly seen as not truly Balinese, shown by your sentence “The Balinese were forced to contend with the government and its supporters”; so those who oppose cockfighting on the island are NOT Balinese. Just such a bad article.