Wearing crowns and colorful 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 Regency, 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.
However the races, which have been held annually for decades, are falling out of favor — regular competitors are now elderly and few of the younger villagers are keen to take up the sport.
“I am old now, and there is no new generation,” said Kadek Nuraga, 51, who has been racing for the West Ijo Gading community for more than 35 years.
“Many of the older racers would like to retire, some are already over 60, but they simply do not have much choice. Somebody needs to preserve the tradition,” he said.
Nowadays younger people tend to leave Jembrana once they have reached adolescence in search of better education in cities, and community elders complain that those who stay are more interested in playing video games than the high-speed buffalo races.
One of Nuraga’s sons, now aged 27, has already left his village, and he is training his neighbor’s teenage son at the weekends so he can take up the reins of the sport in the future.
However, training a good competitor takes time and the older a competitor gets, the easier it is for him to fall off a speeding cart, said makepung chief organizer Made Mara.
Some veteran racers have even died after tumbling off speeding carts.
There is such a shortfall of people wanting to take part that some teams are having to hire racers, said Komang Hendra, Jembrana’s tourism chief.
However, this costs 100,000 rupiah (US$7.5) per race, a hefty sum in a country where many earn the equivalent of US$2 to US$3 per day.
Still, for many Jembrana residents the investment is worthwhile due to the potential financial gain.
The typical prize money for each session of the makepung race is 25 million rupiah, but that is split among the whole winning team, often made up of one to 200 people.
In addition, the value of a pair of victorious animals tends to soar on the local market and some can reach prices of 175 million rupiah.
DECADES OF TRADITION
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 labored.
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 two weeks, 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 color red.
A race day usually lasts about five hours, with numerous races that each typically see one cart from each community hurtling down a 1.5km track.
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.
“It is not actually winning the prize that matters — there is a certain pride and prestige if you win makepung,” Hendra said.
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