Bali’s buf­falo rac­ers fight to stay rel­e­vant

The Myanmar Times - - World -

WEAR­ING crowns and colour­ful horn cov­er­ings, the buf­faloes haul wooden carts at high speed past paddy fields in Bali, with the rac­ers aboard crack­ing whips in a bid to push their beasts on to vic­tory.

Hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors cheer from the side­lines, hop­ing their team will come out on top in the an­nual fes­ti­val on the In­done­sian is­land rem­i­nis­cent of char­iot rac­ing.

The buf­falo rac­ing, known as makepung, pits two farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties against each other in west­ern Jem­brana district, in a tra­di­tion that marks the rice har­vest­ing sea­son.

A world away from the pop­u­lar tourist hang­outs fur­ther south on the is­land, the races are an awe-in­spir­ing spec­ta­cle that see par­tic­i­pants stand on speed­ing carts with flags flut­ter­ing from the top, as two buf­faloes pull each of the rudi­men­tary ve­hi­cles.

But the races, which have been held an­nu­ally for decades, are fall­ing out of favour – reg­u­lar com­peti­tors are now el­derly and few of the younger vil­lagers are keen to take up the sport.

“I am old now, and there is no new gen­er­a­tion,” said Kadek Nuraga, 51, who has been rac­ing for the West Ijo Gad­ing com­mu­nity for over 35 years.

“Many of the older rac­ers would like to re­tire – some are al­ready over 60 – but they sim­ply don’t have much choice. Some­body needs to pre­serve the tra­di­tion.”

Age­ing rac­ers Nowa­days younger peo­ple tend to leave Jem­brana once they have reached ado­les­cence in search of bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion in cities, and com­mu­nity el­ders com­plain that those who stay are more in­ter­ested in play­ing video games than the high-speed buf­falo races.

One of Nuraga’s sons, now aged 27, has al­ready left his vil­lage, and he is train­ing his neigh­bour’s teenage son at the week­ends so he can take up the reins of the sport in the fu­ture.

But train­ing a good com­peti­tor takes time and the older a com­peti­tor gets, the eas­ier it is for him to fall off a speed­ing cart, said makepung chief or­gan­iser Made Mara. Some vet­eran rac­ers have even died af­ter tum­bling off speed­ing carts.

There is such a short­fall of peo­ple want­ing to take part some teams are hav­ing to hire rac­ers, said Ko­mang Hen­dra, Jem­brana tourism chief.

But this costs 100,000 ru­piah (US$7.50) per race, a hefty sum in a coun­try where many earn the equiv­a­lent of $2-3 a day.

Still for many Jem­brana res­i­dents the in­vest­ment is worth­while due to the po­ten­tial fi­nan­cial gain.

The typ­i­cal prize money for each ses­sion of the Makepung race is 25 mil­lion ru­piah ($1900) but that is split among the whole win­ning team, of­ten made up of 100 to 200 peo­ple.

But the value of a pair of vic­to­ri­ous an­i­mals tends to soar on the lo­cal mar­ket and some can reach prices of 175 mil­lion ru­piah.

Decades of tra­di­tion The makepung tra­di­tion started in the 1960s when two com­mu­ni­ties on either side of the Ijo Gad­ing river took a com­pet­i­tive ap­proach to work­ing their fields, with farm­ers rac­ing each other as they laboured.

What started off as a bit of fun evolved into a se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion and now the com­mu­ni­ties field teams each year for the rac­ing sea­son.

The sea­son runs from July to Novem­ber, with races roughly ev­ery fort­night, and this year in­volved about 300 water buf­faloes.

The com­peti­tors from the West Ijo Gad­ing team dress in green and adorn their carts with green flags, while those from the East Gad­ing team use the colour red.

A race day usu­ally lasts about five hours, with nu­mer­ous races that each typ­i­cally see one cart from each com­mu­nity hurtling down a track that mea­sures about 1500 me­tres (5000 feet).

There are four cat­e­gories, with buf­faloes deemed the fastest in the first cat­e­gory. One of the com­mu­ni­ties is de­clared the win­ner at the end of a day’s rac­ing.

While the sport does not lure tourists in the same num­bers as Bali’s palm-fringed beaches, each race day usu­ally at­tracts for­eign­ers, in ad­di­tion to many lo­cals.

For most Jem­branese, the fi­nan­cial gains are just a bonus and the real at­trac­tion is the pres­tige.

“It’s not ac­tu­ally win­ning the prize that mat­ters – there’s a cer­tain pride and pres­tige if you win makepung,” said tourism chief Hen­dra.

‘Many of the older rac­ers would like to re­tire – some are al­ready over 60 – but they sim­ply don’t have much choice. Some­body needs to pre­serve the tra­di­tion.’

Kadek Nurage Vet­eran racer

Pho­tos: AFP

A racer leans for­ward as his bulls pull him on­ward.

The sport is dy­ing out in Bali due to mod­erni­sa­tion. In Makepung, bulls wear or­na­men­tal head­dresses dur­ing their race.

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