A Day at the Races

Batu Sankar, West Sumatra

August 19, 2017

Throughout the month of August, every Saturday, there are races held in the muddy fields near the town of Batu Sankar. But the locations vary, and are decided on the eve of the race. The only way to find out is to ask locally and that is just what we intended. I had met Martine, a French photographer, who showed me some photos of the race. I simply had to go too!

But this is no ordinary race. Called Pacu Jawi, this is the traditional racing of bulls. Each team is made up of a pair of bulls. Bamboo frames made of long oval hoops are placed over the hump of each bull, their tapered ends joined by a thin strip of wood. The jockey stands with one foot on each of these wooden steps, holding onto the tails. And off he goes, pulled by the bulls. A few well-timed bites on the tails ensure that the enraged bulls set a fast clip.

Up at the end where the race begins, most of the animals have to coaxed and cajoled into stepping into the mud and into the bamboo frames. Some protest mildly but cave in. Quite a few others demonstrate their unwillingness in a decisive manner. It takes the combined efforts of several men to hold them in position. Not that they succeed every time; more than a few bulls canter through and escape, minus a jockey.

Down they come, the hooves splashing through the ankle-deep mud. Up spatters the mud, anointing those who keep a discretionary distance with a few drops, but liberally bathing all those who venture too close to the makeshift plank rails. Not all the bulls take kindly to this form of weekend entertainment. Taking umbrage, they crash through the flimsy barrier and charge up, intent on home. The watching crowd scatters with lightning speed and more than one takes a roll in the mud.

Many of the bull-teams leap through the prescribed course, but rarely do they deign to take their jockey with them. Some of the jockeys manage to cling on almost to the end of the field, while others are left floundering in the mud, gazing at the rapidly disappearing hooves.

Expressions of frustration, resignation and fierce intent race through their faces. But it morphs quickly into laughter, joy and the sheer fun of it all. Yells and cheers greet the ones who make it to the end and laughter and jokes rain down on the hapless ones.

But it is all is taken with good grace. I provided my share of entertainment as I emerged caked in mud from head to toe, grinning helplessly.

It is Martine, that I have to thank for prodding me to go to Pachu Jawi – not that it required much prodding! And it is her that I have to thank for waving her magic wand over a few of my photos.


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