Buffalo in the Buff

Buffalo in the Buff

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

Buffalo races take place all over Indonesia and their forms vary from place to place. Whereas buffalo races in Bali are done on an oval track, with riders in carts, the buffalo races I witnessed in Sumbawa were quite different. In Sumbawa, the buffalo were more in their natural environment — a muddy field.

You see, water buffaloes have little hair. They are practically naked their entire lives, with just a tiny bit of hair sticking out of tough elephant-like gray skin. This is why they are called buffalo — they’re in the buff!

Luckily, water buffalo are rather proud of their baldness and have never taken to the barcode look that balding men resort to when they comb all their remaining hair over their bald spot. No, with bald buffalo it’s different. They’re comfortable with their nakedness. And it’s a good thing, because you can just imagine the size a buffalo toupee would have to be.

Balding men should take a hint from the water buffalo, who spend a lot of time wallowing in mud. Mud adheres to the skin and keeps them cool. So bald men can easily cool off in the Indonesian heat by dipping their head in some mud. Mud hats would indeed be very fashionable. Just like the beehive haircut was popular with women in the 50s, the wasp-nest-style hat could be very fashionable for the modern bald man.

But mud isn’t just for men. Buffalo were the first to recognize the beauty benefits of a mud spa. Quite the entrepreneurs they are — now mud spas are famous all over the world as beauty treatments for both men and women. We have these gentle, beautiful beasts to thank for this.

Being a bit of a bovine aficionado myself, I was highly interested in seeing how these water buffalo in Sumbawa would perform.

At the beginning of the race, the drivers paraded their steeds around the field so that the judges, all of them women, could get a good look at the goods. I couldn’t help but notice how docile the buffalo were and how willingly they were to be led around.

If you’re into mud wrestling, you’d appreciate the venue for the Sumbawa buffalo races. The race takes place in a harvested ricefield filled with water. Two pairs of buffalo compete against each other by running through the knee-deep muddy water (yes, buffaloes have knees) in pursuit of a wooden triangular rod sticking up in the middle of the field.

The buffalo wear a yoke to which is attached a wooden frame on which their driver stands in the middle and yells what sounds like buffalo obscenities – perhaps “I’ve seen your mother naked!” – while walloping the beasts on the rump with a whip. The buffalo, however, don’t seem to mind as they never even make an audible sound. Inaudible sounds may be plenty, but since water buffalo are very polite, they probably keep their insults to themselves.

As the two teams race towards the triangular rod, one team passes by on the left side of the rod, and the other team passes on the right side of it. The driver who is able to pick up the triangular rod with his bamboo pole is the winner of that heat.

Being the only foreigner at these races, my partner and I were invited to sit in the tent of the Desa Adat (village head), who spoke some English and whose wife took me under her wing and told me which buffalo in the race were hers. Bets were placed, money collected and the buffalo obscenities and walloping began.

Imagine teams of naked buffalo streaking past you all day long. Very racy indeed!

Occasionally a driver would fall off and be left behind in the mud as his team ran onwards towards the finish line. Perhaps the buffalo hadn’t noticed their driver wasn’t still there. Or perhaps they had.

The highlight of the race for me was when they brought out the baby buffalo and their 10-12-year-old masters. These one- and two-year-old buffalo didn’t race, but were paraded around with the older buffalo and their riders. The young, buff buffalo sported bright-red, handmade halters with tassels. The respect for the buffalo starts young here.

Although water buffalo are still used to plow the fields and do physical labor, I don’t see the demise of this creature in Indonesia due to modern technology. Buffalo are far more important symbolically. Can you imagine the Toraja houses in Sulawesi without carvings of buffalo or a set of head and horns hanging up? Can you imagine the Minangkabau (“victorious buffalo”) people of West Sumatra without their peaked roof houses that are said to represent buffalo horns? Or how about the reincarnation of the buffalo in making Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppets)? Buffalo hide is used to make the puppet, buffalo bone for the hinges of the moving parts and buffalo horn for the rods.

The buffalo is truly an embodiment of the Indonesian spirit.

Love me – love my naked buffalo!

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