I arrived at a small village near Kuta in South Lombok and followed a local crowd who were making their way to a nearby hill to watch the local stick fighting battle known as Peresean.
As more people arrived, the crowd started to swell, and the excitement in the air mounted. We all began to move closer to the dirt floor arena and packed in tighter to get a view of the upcoming action.
I got talking to my friendly ‘neighbour’, Arif, at the arena barricade, and he was happy to fill me in on the rules of engagement. “This is a duel and a match of wit, skill and strength. It gets pretty intense, but now we don’t demand blood is spilt on the soil. That was in the old days, when the Peresean was only held at the end of the dry season. Then, they believed that the more blood that soaked the ground, the more rain would follow”. Arif went on to reassure me, “Now, it is different. We perform the dual regularly during festival times. For us it is a celebration of brotherhood in Lombok, and it is also to showcase Sasak culture. We love to welcome visitors and appreciate people like you who take an interest in our culture and come to watch. You know, this helps to keep our culture alive, especially among the young ones. When they see foreign visitors, they think the ritual must really be cool. It raises their esteem and makes them even more happy about being involved. We are seeing more tourists in Lombok every year and the more displays of the ancient Sasak heritage we can share with a wider audience, the better.”
Right then, the two opponents entered the field. The crowd greeted them with loud cheers and boisterous yells, which added to the excitement building around the upcoming fight. Once in the arena, they faced off and the referee, or pekembar, gave the signal to begin. Each fighter was armed with a rattan stick and a buffalo skin shield for protection. They started their battle nimbly with ducking and weaving moves. Soon enough they began lurching at one another, while skillfully deploying their shields. Sometimes they would make a successful strike with their stick, making contact with their opponent’s body. As the pace of the attacks escalated the roar of the crowd got louder and louder.
There were a total of 3 rounds, each lasting 10 minutes. I was pleased to hear from Arif that the pekembar had the authority to stop the fighting at any time, if necessary. Arif also explained the other rules of engagement, “A fighter is not allowed to hit the lower stomach, thighs, legs and definitely not strike the head or groin area”. He continued, “The fighter has to be bare-chested, and can only use the stick and shield - no hand or feet strikes.” He went on, “The fighters are continually looking for their opponents’ weaknesses”.
After the opponents had engaged for a few minutes, and while they were still fighting, I was surprised to hear an ensemble start to play traditional Sasak music. And, even more surprisingly, the fighters and the referee began to dance along to it. Arif explained, “When the game reaches a higher level of intensity, the music matches this fever pitch. Some of these fighters are already under a magic spell. We believe this music helps the fighters’ spirits to rise. This is why there’s a dance. So a fighter must also be a traditional dancer too.”
I watched with great interest as the music did indeed gather pace. The two fighters seemed to have initially been using their dance to release tension. But now, while still moving in sync with it, they seemed to be using it to focus their attention, perhaps preparing to engage in the next stage of battle. However, their rhythmic movements made the whole thing look somehow less serious, and even like a game. Occasionally the fighters would even laugh in the middle of a dance move.
Just when I was enjoying the artistry of the dance performance, with its fun and laughter, there was the sound of a hard strike on a rattan shield, and the fight was on again. The whole event was enthralling to watch.
The end was the best part. The whole mix of play, dance, and intense striking and duelling had already brought the crowd to a fever pitch. Drums beats filled the air and worked up to a huge crescendo and finished with an ear-shattering final bang.
The three rounds were complete and the ritual was over. Immediately, the two men, one of whom had a bloody gash on his arm, embraced each other. It was clear that the sense of brotherhood and friendship between them was genuine and strong, and there was no sign of resentment. This, I sensed, was what was at the core of what the Peresean, far beyond being a show for tourists.
“The best man wins,” said Arif, “and gains status and esteem for his victory and valour. He takes this home with him to his village”. It was clear to me too that this fight was a deep expression of the brotherhood felt among the people of Lombok.
Sasak culture dates back centuries. By attending a local Peresean stick-fighting ritual you are honouring the traditional culture of this island. So when you are next in Lombok, go on the hunt for a local battle and see a most extraordinary display of Sasak skill, dance and combat play out.