Don’t they have a Facebook page or something?” The question sounds ridiculous even as I’m saying it, but things are getting pretty desperate. I’ve been trying to arrange my trip for more than a month, but I still can’t confirm either time or location for this weekend’s adu domba, or ram fight.
“Facebook? Of course not!” Eka, my local guide, chuckles at the other end of a crackling phone line.
For more than 1,500 years, the villages surrounding the provincial Javanese capital of Bandung have practised adu domba. The events, usually held on Sundays, are eagerly anticipated by the local farmers as a form of entertainment and an escape from life in the fields. Open to the public, there’s no admission charge, but their locations change every week. Which makes tracking a fight down an adventure in itself – a riveting ramble across the beautiful volcanoes and foothills surrounding one of Indonesia’s most cosmopolitan cities.
My trip to Bandung is just two days away, and with no updates, I’m about to give up and cancel it altogether. But Eka’s optimism wins me over: “I’m calling to the villages, sir Tommy. You wait.”
Exploring Indonesia often calls for flexibility and patience. And after nearly a decade of travelling around this amazing archipelago, I’ve found the rewards to be more than worth it. I also appreciate Eka’s tenacity – the other guides I’ve sought out wanted to stick to the typical tourist sights, telling me that it wouldn’t be possible to see the adu domba. Eka is the only one up for finding a fight: we agree to meet at dawn on Sunday morning and take it from there.
Even at sunrise, Bandung is already bustling. Stopping for a quick snack at the side of the road, the morning stillness is shattered by the pulsing rhythms of Javanese dangdut music. A group of hijab-clad women are in the middle of a dance workout, the instructor punctuating her routine with piercing calls to keep up with the pace.
Within an hour, Bandung’s busy city streets give way to leafy roads lined with tidy Javanese houses. Local kids race bicycles and carry footballs to the local pitch for a game. We scan the scene desperately for any sign of the rams, but to no avail.
Eka spots a wiry Javanese gentleman walking beside a rice field with a hoe slung over his shoulder, a face as tanned as polished teak, and an antique ivory smile stained by a lifetime of clove cigarettes. “This man will know where for the adu domba,” he says happily.
Directions are exchanged in rapid-fire Bahasa Indonesia and we make an about-turn, looking for a landmark that only Eka understands. There are still no signs of male sheep, and I’m beginning to worry that we’ve hit another dead-end. But the farmer’s tip leads us to a pair of elderly locals catching up over a roadside cup of coffee. One of them is from the village where this week’s adu domba is being held, and Eka finally gets the inside information we’ve been searching for.
The road winds and bends as we drive up the foothills of the mountain, and breaks in the trees reveal stunning views of idyllic farmhouses perched atop terraced ledges of emerald rice fields. Suddenly, we spot a rusty pickup truck with a pair of snow white rams riding at the back, their heads held high as they regard us with an imperious gaze. We follow them in anticipation. Sure enough, we eventually turn a corner to find what we’ve so desperately been searching for – the adu domba field.
Luck is on our side: the fights have yet to begin. We traipse around the grounds, admiring the four-legged contestants and meeting their devoted caretakers. The fighting area is enclosed by two bamboo paddocks already bristling with strutting, grunting, and stomping rams. To prevent the animals from fighting before the bouts, each ram is tethered to a pair of stout bamboo poles driven deep into the soil. The rams are also lined up in rows, so they can’t make eye contact with one another and provoke an impromptu skirmish. But the animals still sense their rivals; several are now grunting and drawing the cords as taut as bowstrings, spoiling for a fight.
Although I’m the only outsider, the locals greet me with an enthusiastic “selamat pagi” (good morning), wearing wide smiles beneath the brims of their broad black cowboy hats. They’re eager to share information about their beloved rams, and I’m quickly brought up to speed about the basics of the sport.
Rams are hierachical creatures; in the wild, they enter into bouts with rivals to demonstrate their dominance. At the adu domba, the rams are grouped into three classes – A, B, and C. The C Class rams are the smallest and least experienced, while the A Class contenders are burly brawlers with broad shoulders, knotted muscles, and a crown of intimidating horns. I discover that most of them are only two- to three-years-old, and are graded as C Class. Some of their caretakers are only kids of elementary school age, having learned the ropes from their fathers, grandfathers and uncles.
And what a proud tradition it is. Dating back to the Sundanese kingdom of the 5th century, adu domba was originally the sport of royalty, with kings and princes conducting the fights in honour of the Hindu deities. While the Sundanese have since converted to Islam, the sport has stood the test of time.
Today’s adu domba enthusiasts are rural farmers, carefully breeding and training their animals with the kind of fastidious care given to thoroughbred horses. This isn’t surprising when you consider that a top-level fighting ram can fetch more than 130 million rupiah (US$10,000).
A flurry of activity on the central square draws everyone’s attention – the first fight is about to begin. A pair of Javanese cowboys dressed in loose-fitting black Sundanese robes lead their rams onto the field. With horns gleaming from a polish of oil, the animals are decorated with elaborate leather and silver necklaces. They strut across the arena, heads aloft and high-stepping with military precision. This first fight is between two C Class animals, which means that the rams will be allowed to strike each other a maximum of ten times (only A-grade rams are allowed up to 20 blows).
The rams strut across the arena, high-stepping with military precision
The humans step away and the rams face off, locking eyes briefly before charging headlong into a skull-jarring crash, with a sound like two huge beams of solid teak wood colliding. Tufts of wool fly with every strike, the rams pausing for just seconds between each offensive.
A pair of referees, one for each animal, keep track of the fight’s progress. Scoring is done based on several factors, including the strength of each fighter’s blows, and the poise and overall beauty of the ram. Judging can be a difficult job – the crowd keeps a sharp eye on the scoring and cries foul about any perceived discrepancies. The refs also safeguard the welfare of the fighting rams, quickly ending the fight if it looks like either animal is injured. It’s not just pride that is on the line: winning breeders often walk away with valuable prizes like household appliances or even motorcycles.
During the fight, the crowd is entertained by the sinuous melody of traditional Sundanese music, performed by a female vocalist and backed by ancient gongs and drums. Spectators spontaneously break into dance, while the rams battle it out only a few feet away.
The Javanese sun continues to climb towards noon, and already more than 15 fights have passed. The event is everything I had imagined; it’s a truly immersive cultural experience. When it comes time to bid farewell to the friendly faces from the adu domba, I’m secretly happy that Indonesia’s best-kept secrets still take a little extra effort to discover.
Avoid the crowds at the ever-popular Mount Tangkuban Perahu and take a 2.5-hour drive to Mount Ciwidey Kawah Putih instead. The slopes of the caldera are a chalky white from the mineral deposits, contrasting beautifully with the brilliant blue water of the volcanic lake. The area is also home to hot springs that are believed to have healing properties. You can even make a stop at the kandang kambing (traditional sheep farm), where rams for the adu domba are bred and trained.
Food for thought
In the villages surrounding Bandung, where goats and sheep have been raised for millennia, the local delicacy is a plate of sate kambing (goat skewers). Typically served up from roadside stalls, it’s easy to find some along the streets of Bandung. Grilled to perfection over a bed of glowing coconut charcoal, seasoned with fiery spices, and topped off with a rich peanut sauce, the varieties of Indonesian satay are as diverse as the archipelago itself.
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This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine