Peresean, or stick fighting, is a tradition which has been practised in lombok by the sasak people for many centuries. Peresean events are held when the dry season ends to welcome the rainy season. They also take place on independence day, birthday regency days and to the welcome the month of ramadan.
As I jostled for position in the crowd to watch the local stick fighting competition I struck up a conversation with my neighbour, Adi, who told me this tradition dates back hundreds of years to the kings of Lombok. “The Kings used this as a motivator before they engaged in battle with the enemy,” Adi told me, “to mentally prepare and excite their warriors.”
Suddenly, there was a huge roar from the crowd as a young, bare chested man entered the dirt arena. Excitement and tension, and even an element of fear hung in the air as the Pakembar, the referee and game leader, scanned the crowd. The crowd was on edge as the Pakembar can choose an opponent directly from the men in the audience and, if you are chosen, you must comply.
I was grateful to be a female, as I watched the Pakembar’s eyes darting across the crowd looking for an opponent with equal strength to match the young man who stood before us with muscles gleaming, shield in one hand and stick in the other. The fighter chosen to go into battle is called a Pepadu and these fighters are never limited in numbers, so a stick fighting competition can go on literally for hours.
The game leader called the opponent from the front row. He looked primed and ready to go. With haste, he cast off his shirt and entered the battleground. Igniting the spirit of the battle, the Sasak gamelan fired into action with cymbals clanging and a rhythmic tribal drumbeat filling the air. The two fighters proceeded to dance together, setting the mood and the pace for what was to come.
When the drums ceased, these young men flew into action and a stealthy game of wits played out. The opponents darted from side to side, avoiding blows, with shields flashing and sticks lunging at a fast and furious pace. Amidst shouts and whoops from the crowd, the crashing of sticks against shields gathered momentum. At the centre of the battle the main referee monitored the fight, with another referee stationed at the side.
The battle consisted of five rounds of fights with the Pepadu only aiming strikes to the upper part of the body. “They are trying to go for the head,” Adi told me, “This holds the highest value.”
Peresean fighting rules are quite simple. Strikes are only allowed to the upper body. No hits to the stomach, thigh, groin or legs. Battle points are won with each strike. The objective is to take your opponent down. During the battle, to ease the tension, if the traditional music and drums play then the opponents who are one minute scuffling must switch to dancing. Laughing and fooling around often accompany this switch, can make an opponent lose focus. In a second either one can falter and show weakness, which can mean a hard hit comes unexpectedly and its game on again.
The battle is over if blood is drawn, so the aim of the challenge is to make it to round five. The referee declares the winner by the highest score in strikes (to the upper body only) and if no blood is drawn, which is often the case, by the strength and stamina of the fighter. “The traditional music is used to attract tourists,” Adi told me with a smile, “Its all part of the entertainment. The Sasak people of Lombok are a lively bunch, we like lots of noise and action”.
I was totally absorbed in the action of these fighters, as they showed their sportsmanship and agility, avoiding blows and challenging their opponent. It got a little fierce at times, but not violent and in fact, after the match they hugged each other. I got another nudge from Adi, “See, all in good sportsmanship. They hold no grudges and this is why we all love to watch the stick fighting.”
Peresean is an intense fighting game and a symbol of masculinity. In historic times, held at the end of the dry season, it was believed the more blood spilled the more rain would follow. This belief still holds true today. Now, the Peresean is performed several times a year including festival times, to introduce Lombok Sasak culture to visitors. By going along and watching you are helping to keep the culture alive and contributing to the appreciation of ancient Sasak heritage.
Stephanie Brookes is the author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, Cultural Journeys of Discovery. Her tales from Indonesia and beyond can be viewed on www.travelwriter.ws
David Metcalf is a masterclass photographer and co-author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, Cultural Journeys of Discovery. David runs half-day photography tours in Bali, and 8 days photo tour workshops in Java, Kalimantan and beyond.
View David’s work on www.davidmetcalfphotography.com