Karapan Sapi, Indonesian Traditional Bull Racing
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Karapan Sapi, Indonesian Traditional Bull Racing

Karapan sapi is a bull racing festival held in a small island of Madura, Indonesia. It is an ancient tradition still widely celebrated by the Maduran. It is also a main tourist attraction on the island. This article will discuss the history, the rule of the game and also the controversy sorrounding this unusual sport.

Instead of the more common horse racing, the people of Madura Island, Indonesia prefer to ride bull in a race. This folk sport is a popular tourist attraction. People from around the world come to this small island to witness this unusual sport.  Karapan sapi, literally means the race of the bulls, brings plenty of excitement on the island. This highly-valued tradition also plays fundamental part in the life of the local people.

The Island of Madura

Madura is a rustic island located just across the Madura Strait to the northeast of Java Island. The island is famous for its natural beauty, salt commodities, exotic dishes, traditional colorful fabric, distinct culture and its people’s emotional characters. The island is inhabited by more than five thousand people, mostly farmers. Following the completion of a bridge across Madura Strait, the island has now become more accessible than ever. One of the most celebrated festivals on the island is the “karapan sapi” or bull racing. Besides its cultural importance, the event significantly supports the economy of the island.

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History of bull racing

Bull racing in Madura Island had its root well laid centuries ago. It is one of the oldest native sports in the world. The game was originally conducted on rice fields. It was designed as a fun way to plow rice field and prove the strengths of the animals.  Karapan sapi was further popularized by Prince Kantadur from local kingdom of Sumenep in the 13th century. In the 1930s the Dutch ruler started to organize and promote the sport all over the island and in nearby East Java Province.  

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The Maduran takes this race seriously. Decades ago, Maduran living outside the island will readily take a long journey home only to attend karapan sapi festival. Originally the sport was held during plowing season as the racing bulls were actually racing on paddy field and literally plowing the field. Now it was more often held in post-harvest time, usually in the months of July to October. The winners of minor races will compete for Presidential Trophy in Pamekasan, the island’s capital city in late September or early October.

The bull


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The bulls employed in the race are reddish or creamy brown, humped-neck, long-tailed, fleshy and have short horns. The species raised on Madura Island is considered better than its Javan cousin. The best racing bulls come from Sapudi Island, an islet near Madura Island. They are fed with high quality grass, corn leaves, honey, eggs and special mixture of secret herbs to make their necks and muscles strong. One bull needs more than forty eggs a day. The bull is also given regular massage. Raising a strong and fast racing bull is an expensive business for Maduran farmer. The cost of raising a single bull can reach 300 US dollar a month. It is a huge amount compared to the potential prize money.  For the owner of the bull, the cost is a fair exchange for the respect and glory that he will get when his bull wins the race.

The rule of the game

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A day before the race, the bulls are cleaned, combed, decorated in rich clothing and flowery ribbons. Sheltered with colorful parasols, the bulls parade through the town’s major street. Each bull is accompanied by a group of musicians busily playing their flutes and drums. Besides the musician, a group of handlers and supporters also faithfully march behind the bull. When traditional percussion orchestra called saronen begins to play, the riders or local school children will dance a traditional “Pecot Dance”. “Pecot” is the local word for whip.  When the race is about to begin, the bulls are stripped off their fine costumes. They are then dressed in practical racing attire.

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Two bulls are hitched together to a plow-like contraption. A rider, usually a young boy called jockey perches on the contraption. The contraption on which the jockey stands is actually only a simple piece of sled. Once the flag drops, the jockey starts jabbing the bulls in a rump with sharpened bamboo while trying as hard as he can to keep his balance and clinging on for dear life. The bulls run for one hundred meters like crazy, partly because of the pains. On the average, one pair of bull can finish the distance in less than 10 seconds. The first bull whose forelegs cross the finish line first wins the race and the owner takes all the praise. In most circumstances, it is the jury who decide which one is the winner. The race is conducted in a series of elimination heats.

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The bull runs slower than horse but riding it in such a way is no less dangerous. Furthermore, the bulls are running in pain and rage. Should a jockey fall; he will surely suffer serious injury. Frequently, after crossing the finish line, a raging bull continues running and chasing after spectators standing around the finish line. To avoid any unwanted incidents, a particular person called “tukang nyandak” will try to catch and hold the still-running bull. 

The controversy

The sport, fun as it is, also draws controversy. Some animal activists have raised their concern in respect of the animal welfare. The bulls do not enjoy the race as much as the people. The bamboo sticks held by the jockey hit them in their most tender regions. Occasionally (and illegally) the jockey use iron spikes instead of bamboo stick to jab the bulls, thus causing more pain to them. Due to fierce competition and the sum of money at stake, some jockeys sometimes do heartless things to make the bulls run faster such as dabbing the animal’s eyes with chilies or hot balm, scratching the bull’s bottom using sharp nails just before the race and then put on hot balm or chilies on the wounds. 

As if those were not enough, the bulls are forced to drink traditional liquor called “arak”. The jockeys believe that the more uncomfortable the bull is, the faster it will run.  It is a painful sport for the bulls. Indonesian government had forbidden these practices, but so far, they are still occurring. In addition; the game invites local people, mostly farmers to bet. Not infrequently a farmer loses his months of earning on their favorite bulls.  Apart from the negative side of karapan sapi, its role in enlivening the island’s economy is unquestionable.

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Comments (11)

Thank you Yovita for this. Voted. Thanks for support.

Ranked #3 in Popular Culture

Never seen this before, have seen ostrich racing, not quite the same of course, An interesting read.

Nice post! Very interesting and informative. Thanks

Interesting and impressive share. thanks

very interesting article

Ranked #10 in Popular Culture

Yes indeed very interesting, getting to know Indonesian culture from your expertise, well done.

You have done a superlative job in this article.thank you.

Glad you pointed out the cruelty involved too. Better regulations and harsh fines for those who are cruel should be in place.

interesting tradition..we also have a similar festival about bull racing

WoW! A real stopper....enjoyed every bit of this artlce. In Nigeria here, am aware of the camel race nd horse race among the hausa which attracts thousands of tourists. I believe in cultural heritage, however, this animals shold not be treated with cruelty. Thanks for this contribution.

Sounds interesting!