Pacu Jawi: traditional bull race of West Sumatra

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

If an animal can run, someone somewhere will use it for racing. Indonesia alone has a horse, buffalo, pigeon, and even duck races. Usually, such sportive events are fun for humans but rather cruel for the animals. Specifically, let's take a look at Pacu Jawi - the traditional bull race of West Sumatra. This is a contest for the bulls as much as for the jockeys, no whips or stimuli are used, and the best-performing animals score a greater prize than their rider.

© Mark Levitin

Splashing mud

The race is staged in a rice field - obviously, without the rice, but with the inevitable mud. Bulls, especially bulls bred just for this purpose, can run very fast. Imagine two massive beasts and a rider dragged behind like a plough through knee-deep slosh raise giant fountains of mud, a whole mobile geyser of it. Unfortunate jockeys who fail to hold on to the bulls plunge right into it, too, usually head-first. Well, at least it is a soft landing. Not like they have anything to lose, anyway - after the first few seconds of racing they are already covered head to toe.

© Mark Levitin

The tricky ride

One peculiarity of Pacu Jawi is that riding the bulls has not been made convenient for the jockeys, perhaps intentionally, to increase the challenge difficulty. The harnesses are primitive - bamboo loops attached to the bulls' necks, and not interconnected. This means that the rider not only has to keep balance on a precariously narrow perch but to prevent the animals from running in different directions simultaneously - if the gap between the bulls grows too large, he ends up doing splits, and soon after, lying face down in the mud. The only thing to hold on to is the bulls’ tails. Controlling the animals is no simple task either. Since no whips, canes or stimuli can be used, to incite the beasts and make them run faster, the jockeys resort to biting them in the rump. Yes, it is like it sounds - biting a bull's butt while flying through fountains of liquid mud. This is probably the most unhygienic sport in the world.

© Mark Levitin

Four-legged champions

What makes Pacu Jawi stand out among other similar races is that the competition is not really conducted for humans. The prize for the winning rider may be nominal, or, even more often, immaterial – respect and admiration of the community. Mostly, they do it just for fun. It is the bulls that benefit the most from this contest – the winning animals are kept as breeders. They get a perfect, hedonist life - no hard work in the field, unlimited cows, and an exemption from the common fate of livestock: the butcher’s knife.

© Mark Levitin


Pacu Jawi season begins after the harvest, when the rice fields are emptied of the crops, and lasts for about half a year. A break is made during the month of Ramadan. The best time to see this traditional sport is between August and October, when competitions are staged every weekend in Tanah Datar. The races start in the morning and finish by early afternoon, meaning that you would have to stay in the nearby town, Batusangkar. Accommodation options there are limited and mostly very basic, but there is no other option. Batusangkar is easily accessible from Padang (the administrative capital of West Sumatra) that has an airport, or from Bukittinggi (the nearest popular tourist destination). The location of the races changes weekly, as different communities take part in the contest. Ask the locals and take a motorbike taxi to reach the spot in the morning. Expect to get dirty – mud splashes everywhere when bulls take a turn. Do not wear your favourite dress, and be sure to protect the camera. After the event ends, do consider walking back – aside from lovely gentle views of green hills and rice fields, Tanah Datar is a living museum of traditional Minangkabau architecture. Whole villages here consist of beautifully carved wooden houses with horn-shaped buffalo roofs.

© Mark Levitin

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