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 INDONESIA : Ben Hur in Bali 

Buffalo Racing in Indonesia

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 

The white sandy beaches of Nusa Dua, southern Bali, are crowded with tourists waiting for the big event. Because, in a small village on the other end of the island, a unique competition will soon be kicking off: the annual buffalo cart race, when buffaloes are spurred to sprint.

This is Indonesia’s answer to Ben Hur: the Kerbau Mekepung of Delod Berawa, in the area of Negara (33 km east from Gilimanuk). Instead of Charlton Heston, the hero of the day is called Putulali.

Instead of light shiny armor, he wears an udeng around his head and a sarong around his waist. It’s too hot for wearing metal. With his nail-studded riding crop he goads his two well-trained buffaloes: each a bulk of meat and muscle ready to launch its kereta (a cart made of wood and wicker) down a volcanic-sand-track to the finish line.

For this no-limits competition, the ideal buffalo would be 10 years old – a peak age at which it has developed sufficient muscle-power and is resistant enough without being too old. Under those circumstances, a buffalo can reach top speeds of 70km/h – a real achievement for a heavy-weight ruminant of over 500 kilos, more familiar with rice plantations than race-tracks.

Despite this, more and more bulls take part in the race. Among them, the best are the Tanah Merah of the red lands. It is said that, with some skillfully-applied pain, these animals can run as fast as horses.

Therefore, some unscrupulous owners make regular incisions in their hindquarters or anus and sprinkle them with alcohol at the start to make them run faster. Nail-studded riding crops are also often used to win the race, and if the animal is in bad shape at the end of the race it can be killed with complete indifference by the owner…

To prepare themselves, the jockeys (selected for their small stature and strong nerves) and their buffaloes are submitted to a full week of training for the race. The animals are even massaged! The week before the race, training stops. The animals are then fed every day with loloh, a mixture of a hundred hard-boiled eggs and a secret potion made of herbs, spices, wine and brown sugar – all sprinkled with… Sprite.

The soft-drink, that is. So much glucose is essential to provide the energy necessary for an intensive race of four kilometers. For an even better preparation, local wise men whisper verses of the Koran or the Bible to the buffaloes. Sometimes, the pages read are burned during the prayer and the ashes sprinkled over the ‘spiritual’ food of the animals. The jockey must then hope his buffalo’s hoodoo is more powerful than that of his adversary the next day.


On this summer morning, as the roasted chicken odor and the beer vapors drive out the last fogs, participants converge towards the U-shaped 2-kilometers track, located in the middle of a field. Some come from the village.

Others, less lucky, have had to sleep with their oxen on the Delod Berawa beach, 11 km east of Negara.

None of them would miss this festival which celebrates the end of the rice harvest – it is said that the land is ‘asleep’ before sowing again. On the morning of the race, the date of which is set at the last moment, it is the whole area that participates in this ancestral festival. 

The festival was born three centuries ago, on Madura, a small island close to Bali and which can nowadays be reached in 30 minutes by ferry from Surabaya, east of Java. According to the legend, we owe this strange festival to the quick thinking of Lord Ketandur, who was the first Indonesian to suggest that farmers plough not on foot, but with the help of buffalo-power. Over the centuries, with the races being organized between farmers after they finished working in the fields, the festival became a serious event! Even the Batavian colonials promoted the festival by offering large sums of prize-money. Indeed, in 1926, the Governors of the East Indies offered the equivalent of 4,000 euros to promote the first races of Madura and to develop breeding in order to improve the economic situation of his territory. 


And the phenomenon seems to become more and more important with every year. Some people travel nearly 100 kms and come from Nusa Dua, Sanur, Kuta or Ubud to take part in the event. 


Under the rules of Mekepung, the Yellows of the West and the Reds of the East compete in pairs, although the track is actually too narrow for more than one carriage at a time. The carts follow each other and it’s impossible for the second carriage to pass the first one. By comparing the difference between the departure and arrival positions the jury, made up of distinguished locals, designates the winner and gives a point to the victorious team. The stakes are high since it is said that, even though it’s illegal, bets are placed on the race from Jakarta to Bali. 


As soon as the starting-signal is given, the two rival carts decorated with pictures of deities spring forward to start the warm up much like Formula 1 cars rev endlessly until the light turns green. Frenzied comments come from the megaphone and at the far end of the track the carts gather for the kick-off. And then they’re off! Encouraged by hundreds of spectators drinking the brand of beer sponsoring the event, and with the deafening noise of bells, carriages adding to the confusion, the carts, jockeys and buffaloes start the stampede with some tipping over into the ditch or just overbalancing and being trampled on by their competitors. It’s a hell of a race.

At the end of the race, the ones still standing are counted and so the winner is chosen. The buffaloes which are wounded are brought to the beach and washed; this is Kayeh. A representative from the winning team is invited up onto a wooden platform to collect the prize: invariably a gilded plastic cup, a television set and two buffaloes. It’s not quite Ben Hur, but actually much more fun. 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier / All rights reserved

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