"TWENTY Ringgit will do," quips my regular runner, handing me a solitary plastic bag. At a glance, the quantity of old newspapers, magazines and documents appear smaller than usual but the requested sum of money changes hands anyway.
After watching him ride off on his dependable Honda C70 motorcycle, I shift my attention to the contents. I hope I haven’t exchanged good money for some trash, the thought crosses my mind. "Positive thoughts," I unconsciously whisper while skimming the top of the trove. Luck is on my side; my optimism pays off. Within minutes of searching through the jumble of chaos, a thick folder marked in bold with the words "Berlaga Lembu Kelantan" finds its way into my hands.
The wealth of photographs, photocopied articles and notes in the collection soon puts me firmly in seventh heaven. Although bull fighting is now a thing of the past in Kelantan as well as the rest of the country, my latest acquisition brings to life the interesting tales about fighting bulls which once brought fame to their owners and trainers.
The photographs are so vivid that I can almost picture myself jostling among the crowd and joining them in raucous chorus, cheering on the magnificent behemoths as they pitted physical endurance and skill against each other in the bong berlaga lembu, the Malay equivalent for the arena.
While bull fights were not unique to Malaya alone, the manner in which it was conducted, however, sets the berlaga lembu in Kelantan miles apart from the others. Compared to the practice in Spain where the matador sought to slay the bull with lances and swords, the Kelantanese version is a milder and more humane experience. It was unusual for the animals to receive a scratch, let alone lose their lives.
Enjoyed by Kelantanese peasants until the early part of the 20th century, bull fighting tournaments were usually held after the harvest had been reaped and the barns were full. With the food secured for another year, the months of toil in the rice fields were temporarily forgotten as the people started preparing for celebratory pleasures.
The banning of this form of public spectacle wasn’t due to cruelty to the battling beasts; it was instead the result of several serious mishaps caused by bulls going berserk after doing battle. This matter was exacerbated by the presence of mild gambling which the authorities felt could throw the fragile peasant economy into disarray if not immediately nipped in the bud.
Despite knowing that it was strictly forbidden under Islamic law, quite a number of punters persisted by giving the excuse that it was done merely to give excitement to an otherwise mundane kampong life. Wagering on the outcome of bull fights was mostly on a small scale, considered by many to be somewhat along the lines of the old English village horse race.
While a small number depended on random predictions on the outcome of the fights, the larger majority of serious punters preferred to diligently follow the progress of the animals in the weeks leading up to the fight before putting down their hard earned money based on keen observation.
Preparations for the big day were rather elaborate. Potential winners were chosen using a meticulous process and the selected few would undergo training that could sometimes take up to a few months before entering the bong.
Beauty in shape and grace in movement were among the crucial criteria when selecting a potential champion. The ideal candidate should have a smooth, even-coloured coat and sturdy thick horns, which were not too long.
Throughout the duration of training, careful attention would be given to nutrition and temperament. The bulls were fed a special protein-rich grass that, occasionally, had to be acquired from considerable distances.
During each meal time, the jora (trainer) and the gembala (attendant) would mix raw eggs and wild honey with the fodder. They’d then sit by and watch patiently to ensure their charges finished every single portion.
This special diet helped to keep the bulls in optimal condition as they underwent training for the big day. The gembala would take the bull to a field and tether him close to a cow on heat during the initial training session.
After allowing the bull to catch sight and scent of the female, the gembala would lead it towards an ant-hill. This preparatory stage would end when the bull begins to vent its sexual frustrations by goring the ant-hill aggressively and throwing showers of soil in all directions.
The next stage involved the gembala bringing another bull into the field and securing it in close proximity to the same cow. Then, the fighting trainee would be led back to survey the scene from a distance. This stage never fails to send the potential champion into a fit of jealous rage, an attribute that definitely goes a long way in ensuring victory in the bong.
This procedure is repeated daily until the pupil under tutelage thoroughly hates the sight of other bulls. At the same time, the gembala would by now proceed to handle the ill-tempered bull cautiously, making certain that his charge doesn’t get too close to the cow as all its pent-up anger and jealousy would evaporate into thin air should an opportunity to mate with her presented itself.
As the days pass, proud owners would begin to circulate rumours about the absolute infallibility of their champions. At the same time, spies from opposing camps would be dispatched to try spot possible faults and weaknesses of rival bulls.
In order to prevent any untoward incidents, precautions of all sorts would be taken and the potential champions guarded around the clock. Owners, keen to give their bulls the competitive edge, would seek out specialised medicine men or bomoh berlaga lembu. These experts in magic were said to possess the ability to induce strength in the animals, excise evil influences and even prescribe potent mixtures to instil courage during battle.
In the days leading up to the big day, builders would begin working on the bong. The 70-square-metre arena would be fenced with heavy timber to a height of about two metres. This specification became a standard requirement in the first decade of the 20th century after several bulls went berserk and began attacking spectators at a bong belonging to Datuk Kaya Budi in Dalam Lanas, Tumpat.
Outside, the workers would ensure that there are ample seating places for thousands of villagers who pay 20 cents each for the right to bear witness to this rare spectacle. In order to deter potential gate-crashers, the workers would also put up tall palisades of plaited bamboo all around the outer perimeter of the arena.
Special raised pavilions would be prepared if the matches are going to be attended by the Kelantan Sultan, state dignitaries and their invited guests. Bull fights, which originated from Siam (today Thailand) centuries ago, were a common sight throughout Kelantan during the reign of Sultan Muhammad IV.
Back then, the people were given free rein to organise their own bull fights and build personal arenas. A change in regulations, together with a series of restrictions put in place in 1917, gave the Sultan and the Raja Muda exclusive rights to own bull fighting arenas. At that time, the Sultan's bong was located in Merbau while that of the Raja Muda was in Kubang Kerian.
Shifting my focus to several captivating photographs of battling bulls in the folder, I can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like for the spectators as they made a beeline for the bong hours before the scheduled fight. The opportunity to personally inspect the penned bulls and pick up the latest tips about their merits were motive enough for the people to arrive early.
The printed programme given to each spectator at the gate provided a detailed description of the events that usually commenced around 4 pm. It also contained a list of contending bulls which were named according to their coat colour and horn shape.
Among the crowd favourites were Lasat Mata Kail (yellow with long, pointed and narrow horns), Kuching Hutan (reddish with dark stripes), Dogol Chepek (short straight horns that are wide apart), Anak Puyuh (short in body as well as horns) and Debek (long outward pointing horns).
After having had their fill studying the characteristics of their favourite bulls, the people would then crowd around the ahli nujum to get accurate interpretations based on their observations. These gifted soothsayers had the uncanny ability to foretell the animal's success just by looking at the way it moves around in the pen and how it reacts to the presence of other bulls in the nearby enclosures.
While this is going on, the gembala would be busy making last minute preparations. These included bathing their charges with pakan, a specially prepared solution that made coats silky smooth and protected them from injuries. At the same time, horns would be smothered with peruang, a semi-liquid herbal mixture reputed to possess magical powers that ensured dominance over opponents.
Conscious of the possibility of foul play, the ever-vigilant gembala would keep a constant lookout for suspicious looking strangers and make sure that they didn’t stray too close to their precious bulls. Stakes would be at their zenith as the countdown to the event draws closer. There are no longer any margins for errors.
CLASH OF TITANS
As soon as the Sultan or the principal Malay noble honouring the contest arrives, the Tok Jora or bull ring master would strike a gong for the first contending pair to enter the bong. The omnipresent murmur from the ringside would swell into a deafening roar if one of the bulls led in by ropes through nose-rings turned out to be their favourite.
In the heat of the excitement, few, however, would have noticed that each bull entering the arena is conspicuously wet around the head. As part of the final preparations, the Tok Jora would have instructed members of his staff to wash the forehead, horns and noses of each bull thoroughly. This was a form of safety measure to prevent any kind of last minute foul play.
There have been instances in the past when desperate owners had smeared the head and nose of their champions with tiger fat. This foul-smelling concoction would upset the opponent and cause it to turn tail and flee at the first whiff, resulting in cheap victory.
The horns would be cleansed to prevent poisoning from pemedih, a lethal mixture made from several local plants known to contain specific toxic chemicals. Past cases where bulls of repute had been disposed of in this manner have led the Tok Jora and his men to be extra vigilant.
With the crowd baying for action and the two opposing bulls already stamping furiously, snorting with rage and straining for attack, the Tok Jora would make the final checks and, once satisfied, strike his gong for the second time.
This is the signal for the gembala to jerk the ropes free from the nose-rings. In a split second, the raging behemoths would clash with lowered heads. Locking horns, they’d tussle with every ounce of their strength in a bid to gain ground. The fight, however, seldom lasts longer than a few minutes.
One is bound to give up within that time period and bolt. The loser would then gallop around the arena pursued by the victor. For the sake of entertainment, their gembala would allow the pursuit to go on for several laps before reining them in.
The final events on the programme would be reserved for fights between the larger and more powerful kerbau (water buffaloes). The crowd would be thrilled beyond words to witness two heavy-necked buffalo bulls, enraged by the incessant shouts from their gembala and audience, clash with a thundering thud. Their struggle would last longer and often encompassed the full length of the bong, giving everyone present an opportunity to have a closer look.
It would be evening by the time the dust in the arena finally settles. The spectators would depart in high spirits, chattering about the events that just took place, discussing the merits of bulls and comparing the predictions of the soothsayers. The next day, everyone would return to their normal routine and start to look forward to the next occasion when the fighting bulls would once again take to the arena.
Putting my purchases in protective plastic sleeves, I remain convinced that although bull fights are no longer held in our country, their legacy must never be forgotten as they form an integral part of our nation's rich heritage. Hopefully, generations in the future will still know about the time in distant past when champion bulls once graced the Kelantanese bong.