Sheep fighting in Subang
Those are the biggest testicles I have ever seen, I thought as the rams came off the small trucks, wrangled by men holding the animals’ giant crescent horns. Each ram’s scrotum looked like a jackfruit, huge and pendulous.
These rams are bred for aggression so that they will fight. The event, called adu domba (sheep competition) was held on a large flat lawn at a site that reminded me of a small-town fairgrounds in the United States. We drove in through a gateway in a wrought-iron fence. There was no admission fee.
We arrived early, three Indonesian men and me, and about two dozen domba were already tied to stakes in a bamboo grove beside the competition field (lapangan). The bamboo offered good shade, but the sky was mostly overcast, and it was cool there. There would be more than 200 sheep in the one-day competition, Luthfi told me, before he and his friend Ilham went off to buy breakfast from the food vendors. I stayed in the bamboo and watched the sheep arrive.
Stakes had been driven into the ground in long rows, at a distance intended to prevent adjacent sheep from starting the fight early. Two long canvas straps tied to a sheep’s broad leather collar secured the sheep to the stake on either side of him. Even so, sometimes two sheep managed to start butting their heads together, sideways, and then men quickly came to re-tie the straps.
The atmosphere seemed like a livestock show at a county fair, with the rams’ owners excited, but reserved, strutting in their cowboy hats, but mostly wearing flip-flops. No one wore boots. Many small boys wandered about in groups, pointing and talking about the sheep. The men wandered too, but with more purpose. I didn’t see any money and I don’t know if there’s gambling, but Islam forbids it, and all or most of these men are Muslims.
Many people took photos of men and their sheep. Women and children arrived, and with them, men selling balloons and es lilin (a frozen sweet). The rams filled the bamboo grove.
Luthfi came to find me as the music began. He told me the same music is performed for pencak silat — when men compete in martial arts. In fact, many men wore the loose black shirt and trousers of silat fighters. This music sounds quite different from the gamelan at wayang kulit puppet shows and Balinese dances. It is insistent, inspiring. It gives the sheep courage to fight.
Around 9 a.m., the first bout began. The referee blew his whistle. Each ram was handled by men who functioned like the trainers in a boxer’s corner in the ring. To start, the rams are placed head to head, like a handshake. Their men then walk them backward to opposite ends of the field, pinching a bit of flesh just in front of the hindquarter — and let them go.
Two rams charge and crash together, their massive horns meeting with a resounding clack. The music, however, is louder.
If they lock horns, or if one ram goes for the side of the other, the men rush in and drag them apart. Pulled to the ends of the field again, the rams charge as soon as they are released.
Sometimes one ram hesitates, seeming uninterested. When he sees the other ram hurtling toward him, his indecision is forgotten immediately, and he charges straight at the challenger.
The bout lasts a couple of minutes. The ref counts the number of contact butts between the two rams and calls an end to the bout when a certain number is reached (it may be 20). Scoring, I was told, is something like boxing, with more points being awarded to a sheep who knocks down his opponent.
When a sheep falls to the grass during a bout, the ref blows hard on his whistle, and both sheeps’ trainers run in (always barefoot). The trainers of the standing sheep pull him back so he doesn’t inflict more damage. Meanwhile, the fallen sheep’s main trainer picks him up and rubs him all over — head, body, legs and tail. Sometimes the sheep staggers, punch-drunk. Then the man lifts him up by his forelegs, hugging him from behind, and walks him back and forth on his hind legs, all the time talking into his ear.
I really enjoyed seeing the bond between man and ram. “These men are like brothers to their sheep,” I said to Luthfi, and he agreed.
When a bout concludes, a whole team runs onto the field, often with several little boys wearing black silat clothes, to put the big leather collar around the ram’s neck and tie the straps and take him away. No one wears shoes on the field.
I could have watched all day, but it began raining around 11:30, and although it was not a heavy rain, it seemed likely to go on for hours. The competition continued and most of the local people, standing four and five deep all around the perimeter of the field, stayed. But I called together my friends and we left.
Many Western people, I suppose, would consider this animal cruelty, but I wasn’t disturbed by it. When one bout ended quite quickly, I asked Luthfi why it was so short. He said, “One of the sheep is hurt.” As we were standing right beside the corner where the sheep entered and left the field, I got a close look at the injured ram. He had a raw spot on his forehead that looked just like a skinned knee when you have fallen hard on concrete. I’m not saying that’s nothing, but I survived a lot of skinned knees in my childhood.
What’s really wonderful about having the chance to watch an event like this, which has been part of the local culture for a long time, is that I get to see people doing what they enjoy. It’s not staged for someone else. It’s their own thing. The children, the women selling fried snacks, the men swaggering in their cowboy hats, fathers carrying small children and pointing to the sheep, and teenage boys hanging on the sidelines — jealous, maybe, that they’re not part of the show.