“I spill blood for my people, I spill blood for my land…”

The whip strikes across the buffalo-hide shield in a lightning crack that sends spectators’ appreciative hoots resounding throughout the village.

Here in the tribal community of the Manggarai, tucked away in a remote corner of Flores Island, Indonesia, winning the whip fighting tournament, or “cacci”, will assuredly bring fertility to the victor’s village and lands.

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Whip-fighters prepare for battle…

It will encourage the rains to arrive promptly, and the crops to grow well. The victory will guarantee a good harvest for the Manggarai people in the months to come….

The agility, speed, and toughness required by its participants draw from the fact that the cacci’s origins probably lie in ancient training that prepared warriors for war.

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Whip-fighter in ceremonial head-dress

Today’s intentions are less murderous. A community organizes a tournament to ask the spiritual world of ancestors to make the marriage of a prominent couple fruitful; or as a thanksgiving before harvest; or after harvesting, to persuade the ghosts to renew their favours when the next round of planting rolls around.

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The Victor and Village Headman

Deep in the highlands of central Flores, in the village of Bajawa, another traditional contact sport still takes place – the very physical hand-to-hand combat known as “mbela”.

The word means “to fight with boxing” and is deeply surrounded in ritual. Normally this event is organized after a harvesting season, and the community believe it will determine whether their future fortunes will be blessed or not.

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Mbela in full swing…

Two men in the fight wrap their hands with the fibres of the Lontar Palm stalk – creating a kind of protective covering.

But the fibres are also covered by a multitude of small spines which can easily penetrate the flesh. This improvised “hand cover” is further reinforced with glass fragments.

During the fight, if one of the boxers is injured and their blood spills to the earth, the belief is that the soil will be blessed…

The fight is usually stopped when one fighter becomes badly injured. Although each fighter has a Second, who will pull him away from the fight if the action becomes too bloody…

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With the spilling of blood, the Gods are appeased and a great feast is held, after several animal sacrifices have been made to further honour them and the boxers who fight in their name…