Hitting the bull’s eye with balsam

Photo The Jakarta Post/W
Tough love: A bull owners sits with his bull, while waiting for one of the races to start.

The Sonok bull has become quite a cash cow for Madura locals over the years. A rub of balsam up its anus and into its eyes before racing the beast almost certainly guarantees a hefty prize.

By Indra Harsaputra

A long time ago, bulls in Madura were mainly used for farming work, says Madura cultural observer Zawawi Imron.

“When cattle farmers adopted the lotrengan [social gathering] culture, they took an interest in breeding stronger beasts and raising their productivity in the rice fields,” he tells The Jakarta Post, adding that the cattle farmers’ habit of getting together soon led to the Sonok bull contest.

The Sonok bull rates as a superior animal because of its large hump, broad chest, black tail and long body, and fetches high prices at market as a result.

A four-month-old male calf for instance sells for Rp 4 million (US$400), while the semen of a Sonok bull can fetch up to Rp 30 million.

Adult Sonok bulls that have won many contests can go under the hammer for Rp 100 million to Rp 125 million.

Pamekasan historian Sulaiman Sadik says the first known mention of the bull races was in the 13th century. Prince Katandur, also known as Sayyid Ahmad Baidawi and the grandson of the Sunan Kudus, introduced salaga (the plow pulled by bulls in rice paddies) bull races as a post-harvest ritual.

“There are no historical records mentioning when the salaga races started…today’s bull races have evolved into a cruel activity,” Sulaiman says.

To ensure a bull runs its fastest, the riders will typically rub balsam into its anus and eyes prior to the race, and during the event repeatedly hit the animal with a nail-studded stick. No cock-and-bull story.

Sulaiman traces the changing use of cattles in Madura to structural changes, such as bouts of prolonged drought, which would have forced many people to leave their farms.

“However, changes in the way that cattle are used illustrate the development of the Madurese community, which is dynamic and has faced many changes over the years,” he says.

Munif Sayuti, a scholar of Madurese culture, says the unethical treatment of the Madura bulls in the race has long been of source of concern. Four years ago, activists attempted to get bull owners to change the way they raced their animals.

Teamwork: A tongko (jockey) rests on his keleles (sled) before the start of the bull’s race. Sleds have evolved over time, with the latest ones now much lighter yet more rigid, to minimize the weight pulled by the bull and hold the weight of the tongko.

“But that approach failed, so we ended up having to get an edict issued forbidding cruelty toward animals, particularly the practices used in the bull races,” he says. “These practices deviate from Islamic law.”

Munif adds the edict did not ban the bull race outright, given that it had long been part of the original culture of Madura. However, in Islamic law violence and cruelty cannot be tolerated, whether against animals or humans.

Tajul Arifin, from the regency administration of Pamekasan in Madura, says it wasn’t just the clergy who were concerned. The government also tried to take the bull by the horns and stop this unethical treatment of animals by providing prizes for the losing bulls in a race.

“That way it’s not just the winners who get all the prizes,” he says.

“To ensure the losers don’t feel ashamed, we also give them prizes. This is also so there’s no conflict between the bull owners after the race.”

Tajul adds the winners get prizes such as pickup trucks and motorcycles, while the losers also get motorcycles.However, some bull-headed owners are refusing to play ball, mostly because of the prestige that comes with winning races.

Ahmad Katijo, a bull owner from Pamekasan, says using the balsam and nail-studded sticks is the only way to hit the bull’s eye, so to speak, and ensure the bull wins, adding that otherwise the animal “is too lazy to run”.

“Winning determines the price of the animal,” he says.

“If the bull owners now start changing the way things are done, well that’d be silly, because to even enter a bull race you’d need to have spent tens of millions of rupiah. If you lose the race, you lose your money.”

To win, says Ahmad, a bull owner must select the right kaleles (sled) for the tongko (jockey). The sled has also evolved over time, with the latest ones now much lighter and yet more rigid, to minimize the weight pulled by the bull and hold the weight of the tongko.

A bull owner must also look after its animals properly, by providing adequate food and herbal medicine. Kerap bulls used in the races must also have special characteristics, such as a broad chest, small loins, long back, good hooves, upright and sturdy posture and a long tail.

The animals’ temperament also has to meet certain requirements. Fans of the bull race claim that kerap bulls come in three variations: 'hot and quick', meaning they respond when given buttered chili powder and drugs to arouse them; 'cold', meaning they have to be hit continually over the course of the race, and kowat kaso, meaning they are tired and must first be 'heated'.

Tradition lives on: Children watch bulls being prepared for the race.

Apart from the tongko, the critical factors in winning a bull race include the role of the tambeng (the person whose duties are to hold, open and release the restraints for the race), the gertak (a 'bully' who taunts the animal to get it to run faster), the gubra (a sort of cheer squad to taunt the bull from the sidelines), the ngeba tali (the person holding the bull’s reins from start to finish), the nyandhak (the person in charge of stopping the bull after it crosses the finish line), and the tonja (the person in charge of leading the bull).

“If you’re horrified watching a [normal] bull race, you should stay clear of a Sonok bull race,” says Hatib, a judge in the Sonok contest.

He adds that in addition to a bull’s agility and appearance, its posture must also meet the requirements.

In preparation for the race, the bull owners give their animals a monthly herbal concoction of corn flour, palm sugar, onions, onion shoots, tamarind, coconut and eggs. Twice a month, Sonok bulls also get fresh milk mixed with the yolks of 25 eggs.

Bull owner Armuji says that apart from training bulls to walk the right way, stand upright and look fit, he also has his animals bathed twice a day. The bull shed must always be kept clean, he added.

For the Indonesian people, the races and the Sonok cattle reverberate as part of the rich culture of the country.

Sumber: The Jakarta Post, Fri, 01/22/2010

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