27 September 2016

Keep the Buffalo Races alive

Wearing crowns and colourful horn coverings, the buffaloes haul wooden carts at high speed past paddy fields on 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.
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 1,500 metres. 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.

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