Cockfighting | Feathers and fortunes at stake during Andhra Pradesh’s Sankranthi festival

Paddy fields in several Andhra Pradesh villages are set to turn battlefields during the three-day Sankranthi festival as the tradition of cockfighting takes centre stage. As concerns for animal welfare intensify, authorities struggle to check the incidence of the blood sport which, despite legal prohibitions, continues to attract fervent participation, writes Rajulapudi Srinivas

January 12, 2024 07:58 am | Updated February 08, 2024 03:51 pm IST

Two roosters being trained in cockfight for the upcoming Sankranthi festival, in Vijayawada.

Two roosters being trained in cockfight for the upcoming Sankranthi festival, in Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: G.N.Rao

As Sankranthi approaches, the harvest festival once again heralds a lively transformation in the verdant villages nestled among coconut groves, paddy fields, and meandering canals across Andhra Pradesh. In the districts of East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna, and Guntur, anticipation builds for the most awaited blood sport of the year. The tranquil landscape is set to give way to arenas where trained, well-fed roosters turn gladiators. The cleared expanses of paddy fields serve as battlegrounds, echoing with enthusiastic cheers for more action amid the sombre spilling of blood.

“Last year, I had placed a bet on Dega for ₹50,000, and on Nemali for ₹60,000. Dega won two games; its stamina is very high,” P. Ramu , a spectator, reminisces about the battle of roosters in Palakol mandal of West Godavari district. “I am excited for this year,” he adds.

This year, the cockfights are scheduled for January 14, 15, and 16. “Sankranthi without rooster fights is incomplete, and we organise them with the support of locals and community elders,” says J. Ranga Rao, an organiser, who adds that fights will be seen at more than 500 places across the State.

The arenas in villages paint a vivid picture — huge tents pulsating with a sea of eager crowds hooting and blowing whistles, punters carrying the prized roosters, floodlights illuminating the scene and luxury vehicles dotting the landscape. Throngs of enthusiasts flock to Krishna, West Godavari, Konaseema, Eluru, NTR, Palnadu, East Godavari, Guntur, and other districts in Andhra Pradesh, immersing themselves in the practice that even the elderly remember from their youth.

“I have never seen a Sankranthi celebration without cockfights. Many people will visit our village to participate in and bet on rooster fights,” says B. Koteswara Rao (75), a resident of Manikonda village in Krishna district.

A big draw

Around Sankranthi, the cockfight hubs start overflowing with visitors. The cultural practice transcends demographics, drawing celebrities and regular people alike: film actors, realtors, businessmen, IT professionals, NRIs, women, students.

“Cockfights are part of village tradition, and enjoyed by families,” says 20-year-old K. Srivalli, a resident of Bhimavaram village, the headquarters of West Godavari district.

Cashing in on the opportunity are hotels and lodges which welcome guests. Rooms have to be booked at least a month in advance, given the heavy rush. The hotels are typically located about 3-5 kilometres from the arena. Hoteliers, who usually charge ₹1,500 per day, double the room charges during Sankranthi.

Almost all hotels have been booked in advance for the festival, points out Ranga Rao.

People from villages settled in other cities of the country and abroad make a journey back to actively participate in and savour the tradition.

“My daughter and son-in-law are scheduled to arrive from Bengaluru for Sankranthi. My son who works for a software company in the U.S. is also expected to reach home in a few days. We have a get-together during the harvest festival every year and enjoy the traditional food, kite-flying, and cockfights, in the company of our friends, relatives, and neighbours,” says K. Ramaraju of Palakol.

Public representatives and local leaders usually inaugurate the cockfights in villages.

“I visit Vempa, Vissakoderu, Bhimavaram, Pulapalli, Lankalakoderu, Palakol, and other places during Sankranthi, and enjoy cockfights every year. The locals receive us well at the arena,” says S. Sudhir, from Amalapuram in Konaseema district, who works at a technology form in Hyderabad.

Owners of eateries, makeshift hotels and paan shops secure a lease for space around the arenas that thrive for three days. “My 22-year-old son enjoys cockfights. He goes from one arena to another, and does not return home during the festival,” says B. Narayanamma, 48, a resident of Tarigoppula village in Krishna district.

Betting on beaks

Throughout the year, villagers dedicate themselves to preparing the roosters for what is locally referred to as ‘pandem punjulu’ (cock fight in Telugu). They are nurtured with a diet rich in almonds, mutton, and onions. These trained roosters are then sold to punters eager to participate in the upcoming cockfights.

“We train the roosters in attacking and defending techniques. They are taught how to swim and run to increase stamina,” says P. Ramakrishna, a tamer.

Organisers assign names such as Hamsa, Kaki, Nemali, Dega, and Kaki Dega, taking into account the colour, height, and size of the roosters. “The roosters are priced from ₹10,000 to ₹2 lakh and above. Some are trained exclusively for fights. We buy the eggs from local farmers, hatch them, and raise the roosters with a special diet and specific training,” says B. Adinarayana, a seller from Kalidindi in Eluru district.

Rambabu, a tamer from Gurvayapalem village, chips in: “The hatching time varies for different species, but it is a minimum of four weeks. A rooster is then made combat-ready in 10 months to a year.”

Small knives, about four inches long, are tied to the legs of the roosters. “The success of the game relies on the precise and meticulous tying of these knives,” says Bujji Babu, a resident of Veeravasaram village, who also bets on them. The knives are checked by the referees before the fight starts to make sure they are not quoted with sedatives.

Many people who participate in the blood sport lean on astrology to buy roosters or place bets. “I buy the rooster after enquiring about the date and time of the birth of the bird. If we buy a rooster at a right time and place the bet on an auspicious moment, we will win the game surely,” said Venkateswara Rao, who has won many games in earlier Sankranthi celebrations.

“Bets typically are placed for ₹2 lakh. There are instances where punters wager ₹5 lakh or more. In each arena, approximately 200 games are conducted round-the-clock during the three-day festival. The winner takes home the betting amount and the dead rooster. Rooster meat has huge demand in the market with a kilogram being sold for around ₹3,000,” B. Rambabu, an organiser in Kankipadu, says.

The convenience of online payments has boosted this activity in villages. S. Shiva, a hotel owner who coordinates biryani supply that peaks during the season, points at cockfight arenas, saying that punters, investors, and organisers are able to transfer funds through online apps within a matter of minutes. “Many banks offer credit cards to the youth at this time especially. With these, they are making payments online and enjoy the game,” Shiva adds.

Call for action

While the sport ignites excitement and fosters a sense of camaraderie among locals, efforts on the part of the police and revenue officials to control the fervour and enforce regulations have, at times, proven to be an uphill battle. The deeply rooted cultural practice persists, often slipping through the cracks of law enforcement as thousands of trained roosters are killed in fights every year during this season.

Cockfights were banned under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960. Last year, in Krishna district, police conducted raids and seized 1,100 knives ahead of the festival. About 4,000 cases were registered against the organisers and punters in the State in 2022.

“Since childhood, I have seen an unmatched obsession among people for cockfights. Both men and women participate and spend a lot of money on the game,” says J. Usha, a native of Undi in West Godavari district.

Members of the Society for Protection of Cruelty to Animals and other animal rights bodies have urged the government to take measures to stop the bloody fight during Sankranthi. “Thousands of roosters are killed in the name of tradition and fun, and the lush green fields are soaked in red,” Suri Babu, an animal rights activist, says.

“The government silently encourages the blood sport during the festival. During the three festival days of Pongal, Makar Sankranthi, and Kanuma, cockfights are allowed, despite a ban on the game,” says G. Usha, a post-graduate student.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court has also directed the government to take steps to prevent rooster fights in the State. The court had earlier asked officials to submit the action-taken report.

Following the directions, police stepped up vigil and deployed drones to check the cockfight tradition in villages. In 2021, police arrested 3,247, rescued 721 roosters, and seized 2,253 knives during raids in 2021. The following year they arrested 3,466 persons in Krishna, West Godavari, East Godavari, and other districts, rescued 1,650 fowls, and seized 1,827 knives from the accused. The accused, along with the seized material, were produced in different courts, the investigating officers say.

Villagers of Manikonda in Krishna district allege that the police book cases just in name. “Organisers make elaborate arrangements for cockfights. But the police tend to look the other way, instead of conducting any raids on the arenas,” says a villager, requesting anonymity, reflecting the fear or ostracization they may face from the community if they call out the blood sport.

Police say special teams have been constituted and stern action will be taken against those who participate in or abet the blood sport under the AP Gaming Act, 1974. Raids were being conducted in villages notorious for cockfights, and previous offenders have been bound over (summoned daily by the police and Revenue department).

West Godavari superintendent of police (SP), U. Ravi Prakash says instructions have been conveyed to police officers to bind over those involved in cockfights and gambling during the harvest festival this year. Police are booking cases against gamblers and conducting raids on poultry farms where roosters are being tamed and trained for fights, the SP says, urging the youth against participating in cockfights and getting embroiled in criminal cases.

In Eluru district, police conducted raids in Kannaigudem village, in Koyyalagudem mandal and seized 102 cockfight knives and the machinery used for making knives. On January 9, G. Pitchaiah was arrested on charges of making the knives. “Instructions have been issued to police officers to intensify patrolling in villages, bind over the cockfight organisers and gamblers during Sankranthi,” says G.V.G. Ashok Kumar, Eluru Range Inspector General.

To wean away locals from the game, police plan to conduct rangoli competitions, kabaddi, volleyball, kho kho, cricket and other games in rural areas, the IG adds. Police and Revenue officers are conducting coordination meetings with the village heads and community elders, and appealing to them to prevent cockfights during Sankranthi, says Krishna district SP, P. Joshua. Cases will booked against those who give their lands on lease for conducting the banned games, the officer warns.

In some villages, banners have been put up by the police explaining the orders of the High Court on the banned game and the consequences of organising cockfights.

The Animal Husbandry department, animal rights activists, police, Revenue officers and other departments have also planned rallies and awareness programmes against animal cruelty. However, organisers, punters and people who bet on cockfights have already begun trials in villages. They say the game will be conducted as usual and visitors are expected to throng the arenas in big numbers this year too.

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