It was a misty morning in December 2014, when a heavy bang on my door forced me to wake up. These were the early days of my yearlong ethnographic fieldwork for which I had returned to my native place in rural Pakistan, about 200 kilometres towards the south-east of Multan City in South Punjab. I was there to study and somewhat explore cultural motivations behind animal sports like cockfighting.
The person banging on my door was Khalid, a middle-aged man from the village Razpur, who had learned that I was writing a book on cockfighting and wanted to invite me for a cockfighting competition being secretively organized in a nearby village.
Khalid was accompanied by his 18 inches high rooster, Dilbar, who with beautiful shiny green plumage and a long neck like cobra was calmly resting under Khalid’s right arm. Dilbar was participating in that day’s event, and Khalid was excited to show his mastery through Dilbar’s fight.
Cockfighting is a popular passion and taken up with zest by villagers of rural South Punjab, who train and fight Asil and Reza breeds of roosters to compete for their masculinity and achieve prestige. To prepare their gamecocks for a fight, cockfighters like Khalid spend an enormous amount of time, energies and resources on feeding, massaging, and training their champions.
The hard work starts with finding the right pair for breeding and then caring for the egg. Once the egg is hatched, the chick is provided with premium quality pearl millet for first six months, and then for next one and a half year, given a strong dietary supplement made with almonds, pistachios, honey, cardamom, fennel seeds, and local herbs.
At this time, the cockerel also goes through a strong training regimen like a boxer and is dry-massaged for half an hour, twice a day. Before participating in the actual fight, the cockerel is tested for his fighting spirit through sparring exercises.
Dilbar, Khalid’s rooster, has gone through all these dietary and training regimens, and now this two-year-old bird was deemed ready by his owner for a masculine fight in front of other cockfighters to display his fighting abilities, courageous attitude, and aggressive spirit.
Khalid and I left on his motorbike, the Yamaha Junoon, towards the east, crossing the newly grown wheat fields and later the sandbar of River Sutlej, and reached the cockfighting arena. This event was being organized in the courtyard of an old Basic Health Unit, a place completely unattended by villagers after the arrival of the Government of Punjab’s mobile health trucks.
As we reached there, the area was already packed with cockfighting enthusiasts, who had brought their well-trained roosters to fight. After careful consideration, the organizers only selected eight roosters to fight that day, and Dibar was paired against Kala, a champion rooster belonging to a landlord of the area.
Before the fight began, the gambling amount was set and the money was paid by both parties to two referees, who not only judged the quality of the combat but also facilitated roosters during the fight. Dilbar and Kala aggressively fought for about 25 minutes, plunging their razor-sharped spurs into each other’s bodies, jumping and kicking, pecking with beaks, and then again hitting with spurs.
After each round, Khalid treated Dilbar’s injuries with care, gave him water and specialized feed to boost his energies, and before the last round, even injected multi-vitamins to bring out any remaining energy from the bird.
In the last round, it became clear that inexperienced Dilbar was of no match to champion Kala, yet Khalid kept going, not willing to concede the fight for a single moment. It may have been a stroke of luck, a miracle, or the work of a multi-vitamin injection that battered Dilbar giving a powerful blow to Kala, just right under his neck, and Kala surprisingly fled the fight.
It was unbelievable. Something unimaginable. Everyone burst with joy, praising the mastery of Khalid in feeding and training a champion cock, and appreciating Dilbar’s bravery, stamina, and endurance. Khalid’s eyes shone with pride, as though he has achieved a reward of his two years of hard work.
It seemed like all the praises and applause added to his status. The last 25 minutes were undoubtedly the most important time in his life, providing him with access to symbolic rewards like prestige and honour, and enabling him to stand with a feeling of superiority among his peers. Defeating a landlord’s rooster was not ordinary, it was as joyous as it could get. Yet, Dilbar was soaked in blood.
His exhausted body was full of severe injuries, cuts, and holes, and blood running out all of them. His green plumage not shining anymore. Khalid was holding Dilbar in his both hands, yet it seemed that at that very moment, his pride was more important than his cherished rooster’s wounds.
The first cockfight is believed to be organized by humans about 3000 years ago. From that time, this animal sport has been a part of many cultures where it symbolically depicted dominant masculine qualities. Among Greeks, cockfights were shown to soldiers to increase their valour before the battle.
In England, cockfighting was a passion of many monarchs, including James I (1566–1625), William III (1650–1702), and George IV (1762–1830), who brought their carefully bred roosters to fight in cockpits. As the British arrived in India, early merchants and officials fought the English Game Fowls against the Indian Asil breed belonging to local rajas and nawabs. There were weekly cockfighting events near Calcutta, which provided an opportunity for the British and Indian elites to socialize and indulge in symbolic contestation of power.
Such masculine events, as portrayed eloquently by Johan Zoffany in his “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” would also enable many British and local rulers to demonstrate their hegemonic masculine qualities to locals through the fight of their roosters.
The laws that banned cockfighting and other animal baiting activities in the 1820s and 1830s in England were not institutionalized in colonial India until 1890. In 1858, as the British Raj officially commenced in India, cricket and other gentlemanly sports were introduced to instil Victorian values among Indians. Many rajas, nawabs, and other Indian rulers started supporting cricket to integrate with the values of the Empire, thus making cockfighting to slowly lose its elite patronage.
However, the common people, particularly those at the periphery, carried on with cockfighting even after it was officially banned in 1890, and took it as an important tool to achieve honour and prestige.
After Partition in 1947, the Indian Government revised and updated the colonial version of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in 1960. However, in Pakistan, about a 130-year-old version of the Act is still in practice, and as a relic of colonialism provides a way to many cockfighters like Khalid to participate in cockfighting.
To them, this sport now actively serves a purpose to achieve status and prestige, gamble money, and most importantly, display dominant traits of their masculinity.
To stop animal sports like cockfighting, the first step could be for the Pakistani government to update the 1890 version of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Particularly the section 6(c) of the Act needs updating which states that “If any person—(a) incites any animal to fight, or (b) baits any animal, or (c) aids or abets any such incitement or baiting, he shall be punished with fine which may extend to fifty rupees.” Fifty rupees was undoubtedly a large amount in 1890, however, now it is less than half a dollar.
The second step could be to involve Muslim religious clerics in condemning all sorts of animal sports. This strategy was largely utilized by Bio-Resource Research Centre (BRC) to ban bear-baiting in Pakistan. To save the endangered Asiatic black bear, BRC requested Muslim religious leaders of different sects to give their verdict against bear-baiting and later persuaded local Muslim Imams to denounce the activity in their weekly Friday sermons.
This approach proved a remarkable success in halting about 90% of cases of bear baiting in rural Pakistan. Also, raising awareness among youth through social media about the ethical aspects of animal sports is useful. Lastly, bringing education, employment, and development to secluded areas of South Punjab could be another long-term strategy for stopping animal sports like cockfighting.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Sportageous or its founders. Assumptions made within the article are not reflective of the position of Sportageous as an organisation and its founders.
Note: The author has used pseudonyms for people and places in this piece to hide the identity of his respondents.
Muhammad Kavesh has completed his PhD at the department of anthropology, School of Culture, History, and Language, Australian National University, Canberra. In his PhD project titled Beyond Cage and Leash: Human-animal Relations in Rural Pakistan he examined how human-animal relationships are conceived, developed, and carried out in rural Pakistan. He can be contacted on email@example.com
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