Cockfights still rule the roost in India’s forest villages

Cockfighting is a popular sport in India’s Chhattisgarh state, with fans encouraging the birds to attack each other (Idrees MOHAMMED)

The swing of a heel and a flurry of feathers leaves a rooster motionless, a cockfight bout viewed as cruel by many but which binds absurd Indian forest communities together.

India is renowned for its fanatical cricket obsession but in the central state of Chhattisgarh, cockfighting draws the crowds.

“Earlier there was no other entertainment and it helped us meet people from other villages,” Raju, whose skill in raising fighting fowl has made him something of a local celebrity, told AFP.

“Even with all the changes around us today, the sport is still very popular,” the 32-year-old added.

The forests of Bastar district are home to numerous tribal communities living in scattered villages.

India has pumped millions of dollars into infrastructure development, and new roads and mobile phone towers have brought the forest’s inhabitants somewhat closer to the outside world.

Rugged terrain and the tyranny of distance in remote Bastar district still lend few occasions for these villages to interact with each other.

But when a cockfight is on the calendar, hundreds of men will walk far across rivers, through dense bushland and over hills to get a ringside view.

“I do nothing but organize fights, raise roosters and place bets,” Bhagat, 35, of Katekalyan village told AFP.

– ‘Fame and respect’ –

Last month was Katekalyan’s turn to host a bout, with men from out of town ringing the fence of the dirt enclosure where roosters spar.

Most cockfights are over in the blink of an eye, with the pre-game pageantry accounting for most of the action.

Bhagat and a rival rooster owner first hold their bird’s beak to beak to gauge whether they have the necessary hostility to battle.

Both men then use twine to fix sharp blades to the claws of their charges as the crowd shouts out their small wages on the outcome.

Along with much of the rest of the world, cockfighting is banned in numerous Indian states on animal cruelty grounds.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India calls cockfighting “barbaric”, and campaigns to shut it down for good.

But the men living in Bastar’s forests see it as an integral part of their community fabric.

Roosters that survive multiple bouts are lauded alongside their owners.

Raju said the most enduring fighters were locally remembered with the same reverence that the rest of India holds for cricketing greats like former captain Sachin Tendulkar.

“Like you have a field for cricket, this is our field,” he said.

“And the winners get fame and respect, just like Sachin did by scoring all his runs.”

Bhagat said it always grieved him when one of his animals died in combat.

“When we lose a rooster in the fight, our hearts are in pain for a few days,” he said.

“But then we get drunk, and then there will be peace.”