Cock fighting is banned in Andhra Pradesh, but in East and West Godavari districts no one pays much attention. Politicians, businessmen, even the police seem to be in on the game as cockpits abound and hundreds of fights take place during Sankranti week.

BY G B S N P VARMA

It’s morning in Vempa, a village in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district. It’s the day before Makara Sankranti and everybody seems to be channelling their latent machismo. High-end SUVs, cars, and bikes crowd the village’s roads, rattling down the dirt strip, sometimes bumper to bumper, towards the open ground where cock fights are held.

The sun shines orange-red, the air has a hint of brine from the sea a few kilometres away. The ground already smells of diesel and petrol fumes, of biryani being cooked in vats, and chicken pakodi; of cigarettes and liquor. It’s a cacophonous madhouse of voices booming over the microphones, cock talk, betting calls, and yells from gundaata (roll of dice on a board with squares and numbers), and lopala-bayata (inside-outside, a type of card game) players hollering for the fun of it. And despite the chaotic energy, the place is more organised than it looks.

A hierarchy exists on the ground. Of the three fighting pits, the largest, which stretches across half an acre circled by a fence and is guarded by uniformed security personnel, caters to the high rollers whose bets, range anywhere between Rs. 30 lakh-1 crore per fight; the second to the  Rs. 20,000-50,000 mark; and the third to the small change, a few thousands per fight. Innumerable fights take place in the day through midnight in the pits. The vicarious experience of violence combines with the gambling instinct and spectators crowd around them; vehicles are ranged alongside.

The owners of the contestants sit or stroll around the pits, affectionately swaddling their charges in their arms. They fondle and smoothe the birds’ feathers down to the tail-ends.

In the high-stakes pit, two men and their sidekicks are sizing up each other’s bird—one white and the other red. They nod to each other and agree on bets. Meanwhile, people inside and outside the fence, as if possessed, start pushing into the centre of the pit. People outside the fence scramble up on the plastic chairs for a better view. Some men in the surging crowd mutter their own bets to rope in others. Strangers sidle up to each other, holding wads of two-thousand and five-hundred rupee notes, and deals are struck. The bettors use code numbers like 2 or 3 or 4, which signify as many lakhs, or occasionally as many tens of thousands. Unsurprisingly, there is little use for hundred-rupee notes here.

***

The first 10 to 30 seconds before each fight typically reach fever pitch. As people mill around the pit, the organisers flourish their whips, driving spectators away from the centre. In keeping with their reputation for respect and hospitality, they announce over the mic. that those who don’t clear the area will feel the lash on their backs and limbs; they are peppered with descriptive local expletives. An actual announcement goes, “Gauravaneeyulina maaji sarpach garu, meeru madhynundi ventane venakki  vellakapote (boothu) kausi karrato me veepu vimanam motekkutundi (boothu): Respected ex-sarpanch sir, you will be smacked (expletive) black and blue with the whip if you don’t immediately go back (expletive)!”

The fight is about to begin. Handlers tie shining, three-inch, curved, razor-sharp gaffs to the birds’ spurs on the right foot. They bring them close, swaying and swinging, allowing the birds to peek and peck at each other three times.  Then they draw back, placing the birds gently on the ground a few feet apart. Their neck feathers fan out like umbrellas; their eyes seem to fill with animosity and menace.

The birds soar three to five feet high, lunging at each other, red bleeding into white and back out and in again, feathers and gaffs and dust blending into a blur. The crowd is caught in the fervour.

The birds land on the ground, blood dripping from the white one’s breast from a slash, and some sort of kink and blood on the right wing of the red bird, probably from a slice. The mud of the pit quickly soaks it up.

Even as they land, the champions pant. They spit. They poop. Then they lunge at each other again, a swirling, twining mass of aggression. The handlers separate them and blow water into their faces. They blow into the birds’ mouths to clear airways and feathers, and blow on their bodies to rev them up.

Then the birds are placed back on the ground. The white leaps into the air and slashes at the red one. It kicks, stabs and tears, until the red crumbles under the assault and keels over, wing torn and body bloodied. The white too is speckled with blood from gashes.

The spectators move their limbs in sync with the birds. They crouch and bend, eyes locked onto the birds. People keep up a chorus of “hit it”, “jab it”, expletives, gasps, each one cheering on his favourite.

Handlers separate the birds again, and repeat the ritual from earlier. This time, the white bird lunges viciously at the red, puncturing its lungs. The red’s eyes turn glassy. It has taken maybe 30 seconds for the fight to finish and the red one to die.

***

Across the rural hinterland, in the boondocks, village squares and urban centres, cock fighting has gone on uninterrupted, cocking a snook at the High and Supreme Court’s orders. Though the state government crowed about its efforts to curb it before January 13, many ruling party MLAs inaugurated the arenas and inaugurated the fights on January 13. The police warned of stringent action and put up banners saying cock fighting was banned. But insiders say they were bribed.

So the fights went on with pomp and circumstance. People in the arenas: local landlords, politicians, local MLAs, civic and cinema personalities, lawyers, doctors, sons and daughters of the soil from America, students, labourers, farmers, fishermen, rowdies, gambling mafia, syndicates (organisers say they have no truck with people), roustabouts, people whose self-importance is just that bit bigger than the universe, everybodies and nobodies, professional gamblers, schmoozers, stragglers, professional loafers and their cousins, all documented by the press.

On the three days of the Sankranti festival—January 13 (Bhogi), 14 (Sankranti), 15 (Kanuma)—and January 16 (Mukkanuma), people remain in a frenzy about cock fighting. If you plot a Venn diagram of social pastimes and preoccupations in terms of gambling, card-playing, drinking, eating and other things people are passionate about since time immemorial, cock fighting would occupy the overlapping section of the circles in the diagram.

Over the four days from January 13, unofficial estimates of the value of bets ranged from Rs. 600-800 crore, most of it in West Godavari and East Godavari districts. It’s as if the whole state, especially these two districts, is one big hypothalamus, with the prefrontal cortex shut down—a heaving, boiling broth of disembodied passions. Cock fights were conducted in Guntur, Krishna, and Nellore districts on a smaller scale, and spread to Anantpur district this year.

This is, after all, a land in which cock fighting led to battles between kingdoms and the destruction of royal families. Two battles are famous—Palnadu yuddham (the battle of Palnadu), circa 12th century, near present-day Guntur district; and Bobbili yuddham (the battle of Bobbili), circa 1757, between the Vijayanagaram and Bobbili kings. Royalty went bust in both battles. In modern times, people have lost highly fertile and valuable delta lands and homes in bets and ended up in the streets. Beginning with the Kshatriyas, the sport has spread to all other castes.

Given the history of the sport, with kingdoms lost and families ruined, you might think the people filling cock fighting arenas are full of blood lust. But they don’t fit the stereotypes shown in Telugu movies, wielding and waving daggers, knives and swords and a cache of bombs while hanging off hundreds of speeding SUVs, all to kill one guy. These are regular people; they just don’t believe cock-fighting is a relic of past decadence and depravity. From various backgrounds and of various shapes, the one thing they seem to have in common is a certain familiarity with sin.

In cock fights, the birds are pitted against each other. Some places also had pig fighting and sheep fighting. In some areas, horse and bullock cart races were held.

What has changed about cock fights is that they’re being held out in the open. Until recently, V. S. S. Krishna Kumar, the editor of an evening newspaper in Rajahmundry, says, they were conducted in low-lying areas, hillocks, islands, mango groves, and coconut orchards, all difficult-to-access places.

But now it’s very organised, with all the amenities, food and liquor flowing freely, super luxury buses ferrying VIPs, whose food is prepared separately. The fights are held under floodlights, in a stadium-like atmosphere, a cock fighting coliseum. They take place even on the periphery of district headquarters, often just a short walk from the offices of police officials.

“This has gone on like an unannounced, unofficial state festival with many ruling TDP politicians and police in civilian clothes participating,” Krishna Kumar says. The court orders might never have been given, for all the difference it has made.

It is no longer a male domain. “Women are now increasingly present at fights—with some held only for women—and many arenas have separate women’s galleries,” he says.

***

At the arena in Vempa, Perayya from Muthyalapalli village takes in the view. He’s quick to laugh and smile, carrying a “no worries, no care in the world” vibe. He holds a gamecock with yellow feathers on its neck and wings. The bird weighs around five kilograms, and stands about 26 inches tall.

Perayya is a small farmer and fisherman. He is among those who hold half an acre or less, but take a lease on ponds and put in Rs. 50,000 and borrow money, often lakhs, for feed and medicines. They repay the loans once the produce is home. Perayya and his community go fishing at night: “We set nets into which we gather fish and shrimp and prawns; some also go out to sea in the day, and also tend to their aqua ponds.”

Poverty in these parts is not caused by unemployment.

The villages in this area, down to the coast, traditionally depended on the somewhat murky water of the canal, and would grow crops with a mixture of this muddy water and saline water coming in from the sea. Some still do it. Without draining the stagnant water, agriculture wouldn’t be really viable. Then, 25 years ago, people discovered the potential of aquaculture and the suitable mix of saline and sweet water necessary for it. Prawn culture and fish tanks proliferated, turning many people into lakhpatis and crorepatis.

Tiger prawn is exported to various parts of India and the world and brings in money by the bushel-load.  Many landowners and farmers who converted their fields into prawn and fish culture ponds became rich in a remarkably short time. Then came disease. It hit the prawn and aquaculture, which punctured some of the euphoria.

In the last few years, farmers have switched to the Vannamei shrimp, commonly known as the Pacific white shrimp, cultured in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Now, Andhra Pradesh is the largest Vannamei shrimp culture area in India, most of it coming from villages surrounding the town of Bhimavaram, down to the coast, including Vempa.

If all goes well, in three months a farmer with a one-acre pond can earn up to Rs. 16 lakh. The total investment is around Rs. 13 lakh  over three months, which is the time needed for the crop to be ready for harvest.

But now the villagers are beginning to fear for their livelihoods as a result of water pollution, with a factory coming up in Tundurru village to process 3,000 tonnes of aqua produce a day. Its construction has been going on for more than two years amid protests, agitations, and pitched battles between the police and villagers.

“The factory is for cleaning prawns and it drains the waste water into the canal, which would sound the death knell for our livelihoods,” says Srinu, one of the villagers. They are frightened about their prospects once water this polluted enters the canal. The agitations have not done much good, and several cases have been registered against the protestors.

“People from both TDP and BJP have been paid off and the district administration smooth talks us into giving up, promising jobs and benefits. But we know it’s hogwash,” Srinu says. “If it comes to that all the villagers have to migrate to some other place.”

But on this occasion, in these bucolic surroundings, Perayya and his friends are happy, even ecstatic. Sankranti, coming between the rains and oven-like summer, lifts their spirits.

And everyone needs his or her own choice of entertainment and enjoyment, even if the past is close behind them and they are staring an uncertain future in the face. They know livelihoods will go when the factory starts up; it is being built with police guarding the operation. They know polluted water will destroy crops and aquaculture. It is a different yet pertinent matter that modern policing arose to protecting the interests of capital in class conflicts, keeping the hoi polloi subdued so that the lives of the elite are safe.

This short respite, however, is not for contemplating life and Perayya is preparing to go to the pit with the betting stakes in the thousands. “These four days, we play, we bet and that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. When this is over, we return to work, we go to our sea and fish. We go tend prawns and shrimp,” he says. “Until next year.”

***

Although a cock fight is over in seconds, and nobody except professional punters bothers about losing money, rearing gamecocks and bringing them to competition is a painstaking business, involving careful selection of breeds and colours, astrology and star-alignments, weather and climate, time and place and, of course, huge amounts of money, over one-and-a-half to two years. The birds are weaned away from hens to bottle up their libido, and nurture their aggression. They are fed millet, wheat, bran, nookalu (broken rice),  butter, cashew, almonds, groundnuts, pista, mutton keema, boiled eggs, sometimes lizard meat, donkey meat, rum and cooked rice. Running and swimming is part of their exercise routine. They’re also massaged with oils and given steam baths.

“There is a Shastra for this, Kukkuta Shastra,” says Raju who came all the way from Sakhinetipali in East Godavari to I. Bhimavaram in West Godavari. He groomed his gamecock for the last two years and fed it almonds, walnut, millets, pista, and mutton keema.

“It’s all about the colour of the bird,” he says.

Cockers believe on particular days—in bright or dark lunar phases of the moon, with right star-alignment, and at certain times—a particular bird with a particular colour finds its mojo and moxie. They consider 27 stars, each of which has a specific influence on a specific breed. They are also particular about the direction they set off to the pit, which foot to step out on, the direction in which the fight is oriented, the time of day.

For instance, Raju says, “At 4 p.m., it’s parla (dark and white feathers in equal proportions on its neck) that becomes possessed. A spirit enters it, even God cannot stop it from fighting.” They’re careful lest somebody put a hex on their birds. Myths rule the roost. You’re not allowed to photograph a bird because it will jinx the bird.

People hold roosters of various breeds and colours: Kaki (black feathers), Setuvu (white feathers that looks like a crane), Dega (red feathers), Nemali (yellow freckles on its back and wings), Maila (reddish brown on its wings), Savala (black spots on neck), and many others. It’s generally believed that Kaki, Dega, and Nemali are stronger fighting birds. In special farms, connoisseurs rear stronger and weightier fowl, special breeds that cost about Rs. 1-2 lakh.

Raju is holding a Rasangi, with a mix of reddish and yellowish feathers. He is asking for a sale price of Rs. 20,000-25,000, but may settle for less. “Otherwise, I have to take care of it for one more year.”

Holding his rooster—a Nemali with yellow on its back and wings—Narasimha Swamy from Aakiveedu town is walking around the pit in I. Bhimavaram. The arena is about 2.5 acres, the pit itself about half an acre. It looks like a mini-stadium with chairs on every step of the stages on two sides. Last year, Swamy’s bird won four fights, each netting him around Rs. 25,000.

“This is born into our home,” he says, caressing it as befits family. After completing his MBA, the 29-year-old went into the furniture business. He has six more birds at home.

“I’ve been passionate about it since childhood,” he says. In the afternoon, under the shade of a pandal amid the clucking and cries of tethered gamecocks placed under upturned baskets, Swamy is waiting for the propitious time.

So are others, standing with their birds, awaiting the auspicious hours of jhamu: two hours and 24-minute chunks of time. Each cocker has his own sentiment. Some see which colour is creating mayhem in the pit. Some see the  skin on the back and pit the bird with the same texture of skin on its back.

Bapi Raju, 47, an education consultant from Chennai, Peddi Raju, 45, a farmer, and Ashok Varma, 25 and a techie, are discussing their Setuva (white feathers) rooster.

“I have my roots in this village, coming here since childhood,” Bapi Raju says, “This is an occasion to meet relatives and childhood friends.”

Pointing to the white rooster, he says, “Sometimes it so happens that the white colour is marred by blood, which frightens a dark- or red-feathered fowl, and eventually the white one wins.”

Peddi Raju, who knows a thing or two about the white bird’s soul, is not in favour of pitting it today, January 14. “I have been attending these fests since the age of seven,” he says over the din.

***

Ashok Varma says, “Gamecock rearing is part and parcel of the agricultural landscape and life. Since Sankranti is the harvest festival, this has a place in overall celebration.” Deciding that this is not their bird’s day, they plan to come back on the 15th.

It’s a passion that consumes both time and money, a lot of it. For instance, Janardhan from Bhimavaram bought a chick, a Kaki-dega (dark-red), two and a half years ago for Rs. 7,000, and it cost him around Rs. 5,000 to rear it to competition. It won one fight in 2016 and two in 2017, fetching him Rs. 1 lakh. The cost of chicks usually depends on the breed you select. “You can’t really put a value on the bird. It depends on your fascination for birds,” he says.

When it was injured last year, he gave it taxim injections and terramycin on the first day and penicillin tablets till it recovered. He says if the bird has cuts, nicks, slashes, the cocker himself stitches the bird. “Putting four or five stitches is no problem for us.”

Then the dark-red one was prepared to fight in 2017.  Depending on the injuries, the birds may take a few days to a few months to recover and be fit to fight again.

“I am going to retire the bird now, after coupling it with hens. It gets to be three-and-a-half-years and its eyesight is somewhat weakened. Now is the time for its retirement and rest and I will look after it,” he says.

The organisers of these fests know their history, and are determined to re-enact it everywhere, especially in I. Bhimavaram. Cock fights have been held in this village for hundreds of years during Sankranti. People from all over the state and other states make a beeline for I. Bhimavaram.

“This is our tradition, this is our Kshatriya tradition,” says K. S. V. V. Suryanarayana Raju, one of the organisers, twirling his whip. He also judges contests. He says he has heard from his forefathers that cock fighting is about 400 years old in this village. He vehemently denies that it has anything to do with violence or gambling and betting.

“No organiser bets, not a single rupee, we have nothing to do with that. We maintain our tradition,” he says, showing other organisers circling the pit with whips, shooing away the swarming crowd.

His voice rising over the other noises, he says there are cock fighting contests in America (it’s banned in all states in the US), Taiwan, Pakistan, and Indonesia. There are stadiums and tournaments. Nearer home, Chhattisgarh police participate in it and guard the venues. They conduct cock fights in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well.

There is, he continues, jallikattu (bull baiting) in Tamil Nadu. With the massive demonstrations across the state against the ban on jallikattu, Suryannarayana Raju may find some solace and thousands of kindred spirits.

“If you say,” he argues, “cock fighting is wrong, then what about killing millions of goats and chicken and other animals for eating? Moreover, rearing gamecocks is a means of livelihood for many.”

In this arena, the organisers have arranged conducted dinki pandem (fights without knives and gaffs). Without knives to settle matters in seconds, the birds peck at each other endlessly, nicking and chafing, gnawing and clawing, shoving and pummelling each other. A nick here and there, with a feather falling, it goes on for more than one hour, in a battle of attrition, until one bird runs away, exhausted, frightened, and sick of injuries.

The winners of these dinki pandem receive cups, posing for the cameras with their birds and trophies, smiling and proud.

“Winning the cup is a matter of prestige,” says K. Raghu Rama Krishna Raju, an industrialist and politician, who earlier filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the High Court’s ban on cock fighting. He has come here to distribute cups to the winners of the dinki fights. Despite having grown up in cities, he appears to want to “reconnect with his roots”. “In other festivals, it’s mostly your own family meeting and eating, but this has an entertainment quotient built into it. I would not have gone to the Supreme Court if not for wanting to preserve all these magnificent breeds,” he says. His contention echoes the argument for continuing with jallikattu and preservation of breeds of bulls.

If you follow the High Court’s order strictly, he says, owning a bird is a crime. If you outlaw the sport, all the male birds would be killed and eaten on day one.

“Ultimately, whether you want a few birds to die or want entire races of birds to go extinct: that is the question. I have never bet a single rupee and knife fights are not correct.”

***

People bristle at Sankranti becoming synonymous with cock fights and betting bonanza. “This is pure gambling, nothing whatsoever to do with tradition,” says Nageswara Rao, a retired physical instructor. His cheeks flush red with emotion. The courts have passed their orders, and it’s the responsibility of the state government to implement them.

“You dismiss the government if it doesn’t follow the court’s orders. There is no sanctity for the law,” he says. “Betting and gambling took over Sankranti,”

Staggering amounts of money have been bet on cock fights that last only seconds. People on the Internet would have more time, weigh the pros and cons, engage in a bit of game theory, and bet. Day speculators on the stock market are comparatively long marathoners.

In one blindingly swift encounter in Vempa, the birds flew up. The yellow-feathered bird bayoneted the red-feathered bird. It fell down dead, its feet up in the air, all in less than 10 seconds. The betting, among the cockers and on the side, crossed one crore, which is routine around pits, according to regulars.

There are reports that in some places, people used card swiping machines, Paytm and made payments online. Texts would be sent immediately after the fight, transferring betting funds to each other’s accounts, insiders say.

Rao is shocked that this is justified in the name of tradition and culture.  Culture, as Clyde Kluckhohn puts it in Culture and Behaviour, is society’s “complete design for living.” In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, distinct regional cultures flourish but, it seems, not in Andhra.

Apart from some segments of the general population, animal rights and rescue organisations and activists fought against “the tradition” of cock fights in court. In December 2014, Narahari Jagdish Kumar from West Godavari district filed a petition in the Hyderabad High Court, asking for directions to prevent cock fights. Another petition was filed in December 2016 by Gopal Surabathula, the founder of Animal Rescue Organisation, in Kakinada, East Godavari district. The organisation has conducted awareness camps on the decreasing population of sparrows and stray dogs, adopted a village where it supplied anti-rabies vaccine, and relentlessly fought against illegal slaughter houses.

In addition to cruelty to birds, Surabathula says, the venues are hot houses of gambling and child labour. Kids below the age of 14 serve liquor, they dress the defeated birds and burn them on the fires and are constantly exposed to violence. “A generation is being bred on violence,” he says, adding that this finds a mention in his PIL. Surabathula says earlier directions of the courts have been twisted and the organisers waged a misinformation campaign. Some say that the organisers made a lot of money in the process.

He doesn’t think there is any evidence that cock fights are a means of saving the breeds. “Where are the native breeds of cows and other animals, when we have all the laws? If you love animals, you rear them without pitting them against each other.” He says a few cases have been registered by police, but they’re old cases.

Nobody knows if cock fighting is an escape or vocation. As the day wears on in I. Bhimavaram and other arenas, a small mound of dead and dying birds forms. Until moments ago, they were groomed royally, fed on the fanciest food, bodies massaged with oils and freshened with steam baths.

The winner usually takes the dead birds, or they are sold on the spot. Some are dumped in hot water to remove the feathers, their bodies barbecued in a flaming pit, cleaved and  gutted, while stray dogs linger about to latch onto innards thrown into a heap nearby. This is as “locavore” as it gets.

Birds lie drowning in their own blood from punctured lungs, beaks mutilated, legs slashed, wings broken. Some mournfully whimper, perhaps contemplating their imminent death. It’s a far cry from their previous mantle: that of glorious warriors in battle.

G B S N P Varma is a journalist based in Andhra Pradesh

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