Whip Fighting, Flores Island, Indonesia

Yesterday Monday 22nd August 2005 we timeously arrived at the small office of Augustine, the man who was to be our translator for the days adventure. It was eight in the morning and the roads were already lined with masses of children on the way to school, adults on the way to work and dogs on the way to the frying pan, if it was to be a blue Monday? The sun was high and hot, rising every second racing towards its six pm position in the Western sky. The skies were clear blue and there was a gentle onshore breeze just starting up. It promised to be a good day.

We had anticipated an hour to an hour and a half trip up the infamous 'roller coaster' style bitumen strips that form the somewhat congested roadwork that is the bain of any visitors time in Indonesia. In fact it is a source of entertainment, witnessing the public 'bemos' plying their trade across the Trans-Flores Highway, stacked to overfill. People and cargo squishing into every possible space and then when that runs short loading up two or three passengers on the roof! I believe these guys get a discount for taking up the rodeo position but they have the duty of ensuring the roof packed cargo does not slide off either! A difficult task at 60 kilometers an hour!

Our driver, having finished his breakfast, welcomed us and we conquered the trip in under an hour, which may be a new record! Driving East the dominant and inspiring 'silver caps' coming into view on a regular basis. Those are the Mosques, which are plentiful in the East. We passed through villages where young naked children, along with sarong adorned maidens splashed gaily under bamboo piped waters for there morning ablutions, right next to the road. The same waters filtered down through successive tiers of paddies and supplied the life line to the crops of rice currently undergoing the wet phase of there three month cycle to maturity. Along with the water buffaloes, rickety wooden hoes and woven 'Chinese-style' hats this whole image looks like a picture from a South East Asia tourist brochure.

We arrived at a seemingly inconspicuous place on the road that we were told was the village where we were to witness the festival associated 'game' of Whip Fighting. It is a traditional sport here on the island of Flores and we were very interested in seeing just how it worked! The 'Kepala Desa' or village Chief welcomed us formally at the foot of a small grassy incline that lead to the upper tier along which were placed ancient animist carvings of religious figures all carved from stone and creating a tremendously archaic ambience. Together with the 'gamelan' musical instruments, which have their own distinct high pitched 'ting tong', and are common in most Asian musical orchestras, we were lead back in time. Amongst the completely entrancing music were groupings of women dressed in the fine styles of the East. Shiny silken blouses in colours ranging from Electric orange to placid pink and gentle greens, lower torsos wrapped in their hand made 'Ikat' Sarongs and belts fashioned from hand sewn colourful materials, it was a menagerie of colour, excitement and tradition.

The musical beat would continue for an hour or more yet and once the fighters had prepared there costumes the fighting session was declared formally open by the Kepala Desa and we were given palm wine to toast the occasion. The strutting and shaking began with the rattle of bells a predominant sound emanating from the bell chains attached to the fighters waists. The rest of their costume was made up of a decorative three horned head cover symbolising the horns of the sacred water buffalo, that these 'rice people' rely so heavily on, a wadding of colourful cloth which would be tucked across the highly regarded facial area during the times that the warrior had the position of 'defender'. Their upper bodies were completely uncovered open to violent attack by the buffalo skin whip end. From their waists hung the symbolic bells to ward off evil spirits and there Ikat woven sarong together with long trousers completed the outfit.

The armory for assault included a shield, again of buffalo skin stretched tightly over a rattan frame, and a rattan handled, whip of buffalo hide about 4 feet in length. The defender had a shield and a rattan bow that had a single length of buffalo hide hanging from one end to provide some protection from the sting of the whip.

The ceremony begins with the warriors 'warming up' whilst showing off there colourful garments and deft footwork. Around and around to the beat they went until the defender tucked his face coverings in under his head cover. Then when he was ready he would take up his stance in preparation for defence against the attacker. The attacker would saunter in on his prey and decide how best to attack and leave the welt marks of his intrusion into his opponents territory. The beat of the steel drums kept menacing the air until WHIP, the attacker had his strike. He is only allowed one strike and then the warriors change sides. Attacker becoming defender and vice versa. The display continues for many rounds or until one of the warriors is too fill of welts to continue. Each time, after an attack the defender would present himself to the Kepala Desa for inspection to prove that he was not hit!

Only once did the whip break through and catch a defender on his shoulder. Fortunately for him it was a friendly occasion as both fighters came from the same village. When this is not the case and particularly around Independence day celebrations, when there is inter village competition, the dust really gets kicked up and the fighting becomes intense often resulting in hospital visits!

The entire event was fantastic and a great peek into the traditions that still form the basis of many ceremonies here in Indonesia. Although they may be Catholics or Islamic or Buddhist there is still as strong connection with the ancestor/animist worship of not so long ago.