It is a typically peaceful and picturesque Balinese dawn. Mist clings to the hills of western Bali and, further westward, the peaks of Java are already reflecting the first golden heat of the day. The sound of birdsong carries clearly across a patchwork of paddies that looks more like well-tended lawns in a romantic English watercolour.
It’s a perfect morning for a solitary stroll, yet I’m balancing on a paddy *** with about a hundred other early risers. The crowd is strangely silent and apart from a single, sarong-clad form that hurries along the track.
We strain our ears at the first hint of clanking bells and squint as the first rays of the sun burnish a billowing cloud of dust that rises from behind a stand of banana trees. The sarong-clad woman dashes into the cover of a paddy field just as a bizarre vehicle breaks from the cover.
A flag billows like a battle standard and above the clatter of chariot wheels I hear the maniacal sound of what appears to be an Apache war whoop. Two galloping buffalos, driven by a wild figure who has reins in one hand and a heavy wooden cosh in the other, charge towards us as if intent on some hellish barbarian massacre.
Somehow, the charioteer manages to stay on his feet as he flails at the animals. Streaks of red splash their massive rumps. As they draw closer, I notice the painted horns that are flattened along the backs of the stamping bulls and the carved wooden dragon that rides between their heads. But the crazily bucking chariot thunders past us and I breathe a sigh of relief.
These fearsome chariots are not in fact part of some apocalyptic death squad, but competitors in the west Balinese sport of mekepung, buffalo racing. Three vehicles race in each heat and the overtaking manoeuvres, with thundering chariots tearing neck-and-neck along the rutted strip of dirt, are not far short of suicidal. The war-whoops and clattering wheels turn the peaceful paddyfield morning into a far eastern version of Ben-Hur as a chariot careens into the rice plants and overturns.
At the finish line, race team manager Wayan Cisdema is happy with his team’s performance. They have already romped home well ahead in the first heat of the morning.
I ask why the backs of his bulls are so ostentatiously devoid of the splattering of blood that seem 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 nail-spiked wooden cosh. But the team manager is coldly logical: They were already very fast,” he shrugs, “so it wasn’t necessary. Lebih lambat, lebih darah.”
“More slow, more blood.” It sounded like an equation the tough-looking 36-year-old army officer may have picked up from some boot-camp training session. But buffalo racing seems to be what Wayan now prefers to put his energy into. He has been up since well before dawn, dressing his bulls in decorated harnesses, binding their horns in silk ribbons and blessing them at the family temple.
His lightweight bamboo chariot, with its dragon and snake carvings, is certainly the most ornate at this morning’s training session and his five-year-old bulls have already proved they have enough stamina to cover the 2km dirt track course at speeds that can reach 60mph.
This may only be a training session but, this being Bali, a fair amount of money has already changed hands among the gambling contingent in the audience. As with the local penchant for cockfighting, betting is a big part of the sport and, although Wayan races primarily for fun, his bulls are worth more money in stud fees with every race that they win. At about 200kg, they are smaller than the heavy agricultural draft buffalo and are specially chosen and nurtured for a life that, apart from the vicious wooden cosh, might be a relatively privileged one. The strength of these racing bloodlines has led to a breed of buffalo that is resistant to many of the diseases which infect their less fortunate contemporaries. White bulls are particularly favoured and owners might pay as much as £2000 for the perfect racing partner for a good bull.
This is important since teams not only win by speed but also pick up points for appearance and style. You see fine black bulls decorated with golden crowns and scarlet tassles and with what appear to be red-and-white striped football socks over their lyre-shaped horns. White bulls – so sparsely covered in hair that they are literally pink – are decked with mirrors and plastic flowers that seem at odds with the fresh blood that has been drawn out of their backs by the biting whips.
Jembrana regency is known for the water buffalo that are still used to work the fields and the Javanese-style wooden carts, fore-runners of these apparently flimsy little racing platforms, are still a common sight here. It is said that Mekepung races were first introduced to the region by Madurese immigrants to celebrate the end of the rice harvest but they were originally the natural outcome of the farmers’ perennial race to get his produce to market.
The professional racing jockeys of today are a particularly tough and fearless breed. They can attain the reputation of local heroes among the followers of the two main local teams, Ijo Gading Timur and Ijo Gading Barat. Crashes are common and often result in injury not only for the driver but also frequently for the spectators who line the narrow racetracks. Another occupational hazard is apparently a trancelike state that one old man described as ‘speed-craze’. As I stand talking to Wayan, a young charioteer crosses the finishing line and, inexplicably, begins flailing at his bulls with renewed vigour as he tries to charge them into the crowd. His eyes are glazed and his movements are violent and erratic. While several drivers and bystanders fight to hold the bulls back, others manage to drag him from the chariot. He has quite clearly been taken over by a will that is not his own and as they pry the club from his fingers he passes out entirely.
Wayan shrugs and describes it simply as “a normal emotional reaction”, but I feel that I’ve had a vague insight into what the old Malay word ‘amok’ really means.”