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An Ancient Tradition Going Back Before Grecian Antiquity
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
Cock-fighting, often referred to as “Cocking” originated out of the Asian continent, very popular in India, China, Persia and other eastern countries. Tamil Nadu in India is still a hot bed for cocking, mentioned in ancient Tamil texts like the Manu Needhi Sastiram, Kattu Seval Sastiram, and other sangam-age literature, some 2,000 years ago. It was referred to as the favourite past-time for Maravars or the warriors of Tamil Country. Although illegal in India because of animal rights concerns,the authorities often turn a blind eye especially during the Pongol festival, held in the spring to forebode a good harvest large cocking mains are set up throughout the region. The locations are hard to find and generally known only to the locals. The mains take place against a backdrop of carnival like celebration with only men and boys in attendance, traditions passed down for generations from father to son. The game-fowl is now probably the closet descendant to the Indian jungle-fowl (Gallus Ferrugineus). Cocking’s history dates as far back as Themistocles, when his Greek armies were moving against the Persians. He witnessed a desperate match between two cocks, halting his armies he marvelled at the tenacity and skill of the feathered warriors. Subsequently, after the Greek victory over the Persians cockfights were held annually in Athens as a religious and patriotic event, eventually moving to a sporting event for the shear pleasure of the masses. From Athens the sport spread throughout Greece, Asia Minor and Sicily, with the best cocks being breed in Alexandria, Delos, Rhodes and Tanagra. Initially the romans despised this “Greek Diversion” but eventually enthusiastically adopted it. Columella (1st century A.D.) complained that its devotees often spent their whole patrimony in betting at the pit-side. The cocks were fashioned with iron spurs (tela), as in the East, and were often dosed with stimulants to make them fight more savagely.
Cocks are fought at an age of one to two years. “Heeling,” referred to as the fastening of the spurs, and “cutting out,” referring to the trimming of the wings at a slope, cutting of the tail down by one-third of its length and shortening the hackle and rump feathers, are all arts acquired by experience. The comb is also cut down close, to offer the least possible target for the opponents bill. The cock is then provided with either “short heels,” spurs 12 in. or less in length, or “long heels,” from 2 to 22 in. in length. The training of a cock for the pit lasts anywhere from ten days to a month or more, during that time the bird, much like any prize fighter, is subjected to a rigid diet and exercise program evolving running and sparring. Once set down in the pit the birds can not be touched, unless they need to be removed from the matting. Whenever a bird refuses to fight any longer he is set breast to breast with his opponent in the middle of the pit, and if he still refuses to fight the main is lost.
From Rome cocking spread northwards, opposed by the Christian Church it nevertheless became popular in Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain and her colonies. Animal rights laws have stemmed cocking in most countries except Spain, countries of Spanish origin and the Orient, where it is still legal and very popular. Cocking-mains generally consisted of fights between an agreed number of pairs of birds, the majority of victories would decide the main; but there were two other varieties that were of particular interest to moralists. These were the “battle royal,” a number of birds were “set,” placed in the pit, at the same time, and allowed to remain until all but one were killed or disabled; and the “Welsh main,” in which eight pairs were matched, the eight victors being again paired, then four, and finally the last surviving pair. Among London cockpits were those at Westminster, in Drury Lane, Jewin Street and Birdcage Walk (depicted by Hogarth). Over the royal pit at Whitehall housed the king’s cock-master. The pits were circular in shape with a matted stage about 20 ft. in diameter and surrounded by a barrier to keep the birds from falling off. On top of this barrier the first row of the audience was accommodated. Not many towns in the kingdom lacked a cockpit. It offered the sporting classes the opportunities for betting that were not readily available by horse-racing. With the growth of horse-racing and the increased facilities for reaching the racing centres, cocking gradually declined, especially after parliament passed laws against it, those attending and caught risked arrest. Among the best-known devotees of the sport was a Colonel Mordaunt, who, in 1780, took a number of his prized English game-cocks to India. He found the sport regarded very highly with the native rulers, unfortunately for him, his birds were soundly beaten.