VIJAYAWADA, India — The four-lane highway stretches across this flat, riverine part of southern India, flanked by fields of rice and sugar cane. My guide twists around from the passenger seat to offer some advice: Keep a low profile and don’t take pictures. The activity we seek is “strictly prohibited,” he explains. But he assures me his brother-in-law will know where to go.
It is the first day of Makar Sankranti, a major festival that takes place each January to celebrate the harvest and the advent of longer days. People light bonfires, discarding the old and welcoming the new. They prepare feasts and create intricate decorations made from brightly colored powders. And they hold cockfights — many, many cockfights.
Awash in gambling and liquor, the fights are big-money affairs. They’re also entirely illegal. The fact that they persist points to a conundrum of modern-day India: When the rule of law takes on tradition and political muscle, it often loses.
The country’s Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld a ban on cockfights, but its writ does not appear to extend here. Six miles down a rural road, a rutted track leads off to the right through tracts of guava and tobacco. After two improvised checkpoints, we reach a huge pit. More than 100 cars are parked in the ochre-colored earth. From beyond the far end of the slope comes the sound of cheers and rooster calls.
This is our destination: a cockfight held under the auspices of the local member of the state legislature.
Cockfights take place all over the globe — including in pockets of the United States — and on a small scale across India. But what happens in some coastal districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh during the Sankranti festival is “completely different,” says N.G. Jayasimha, who heads the Indian arm of Humane Society International. It is like a “huge Super Bowl tournament.”
Birds — worth as much as $700 each — are trained for the fights all year. One breeder described feeding his roosters a special diet of millet, sorghum, cashews and lizard meat. Each event, involving dozens of fights and lasting up to three days, can draw hundreds or thousands of people.
Large amounts of money change hands, though given the illegality of the proceedings, no one knows exactly how much. This year, the organizers of one event used drones equipped with cameras to film the fights and transmit the video to nearby screens, Jayasimha says.
After climbing a narrow path, we arrive at the cockfight near the village of Koppaka in the district of West Godavari. There are more than 1,000 people, nearly all men, concentrated around two rings. The first is simply a head-high fence where spectators jostle for a look. Beyond it, past gambling tables and stands offering fresh watermelon and grilled corn, is the main arena. The crowing of roosters echoes from dozens of birds tied to spikes in the ground.
Inside the arena, under a billowing white tent, is Chintamaneni Prabhakar, a member of the state legislature from the Telugu Desam Party that governs Andhra Pradesh. He takes selfies with spectators, constantly shadowed by two bodyguards carrying snub-nosed rifles. Before each cockfight, he strides into the earthen ring and inspects the birds before returning to his front-row seat.
An announcement over a loudspeaker warns that taking photographs and videos is forbidden. Short and lethal-looking blades are strapped to the roosters’ legs. Trainers give the birds a sip of water, stroke their heads, then tap their beaks together before retreating. The noise from the crowd swells as the two birds rush at each other in a blur of feathers and dust.
Less than a minute later, the trainers separate the birds and return them to their starting points, but one is wounded and cannot get up. It tilts unnaturally to one side. Later the loser will be picked up by the feet and dropped in a hollow at the arena’s edge where the ground is already stained red.
After each fight, money furiously changes hands. Mani Chinnam, 25, a breeder outside the arena, seems surprised when asked whether he is concerned about participating in an illegal activity. “Why should I worry?” he responds. Chinnam has brought 25 roosters to the fights, all with powerful chests, shiny tail feathers and alert eyes. Their training regimen involves swimming three times a day.
No police are visible anywhere. Local law enforcement officials say they focus on preventing the fights before they happen — through education, legal notices and arrests — because breaking up the actual events is neither possible nor prudent.
The crowds at cockfights can range into the thousands, says M. Ravi Prakash, the police superintendent for West Godavari district. “There are 4 million people [in the district] and all are supporting this,” he says. “So how can we control it with a 2,500 [person] force?” Junior officers are also wary of crossing powerful local politicians, he notes.
Cockfighting is “very, very culturally ingrained,” adds Vishal Gunni, the police superintendent in the neighboring district of East Godavari. “How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? With turkeys. What would happen if you were to ban the cutting of turkeys?”
Animal rights activists place the blame on elected officials who attend the fights. “When politicians organize these events, the message is sent to the people that law and order means nothing,” Jayasimha says. Contacted after the cockfight, Chintamaneni Prabhakar, the local legislator present at the event in Koppaka, declined to comment and claimed he had no knowledge of the proceedings.
After leaving the first cockfight, we drive to the village of Telaprolu in a nearby district where another event is well underway. It is a grittier scene: several dusty tents with a raised platform at the center where spectators crowd and push for a view of the battling roosters. The announcer barks at the audience, brandishing a whip and yelling at them to move back.
Radhakrishna, 35, a local farmer who uses only one name, has brought his three children, all under the age of 12, to the fights. He has memories of being here as a child atop his own father’s shoulders. Now his children, too, enjoy coming, Radhakrishna says.
The announcers continue their thunderous shouts and trainers carefully carry roosters to and from the ring. As we leave, the sky is starting to darken and floodlights come on around the arena. The fights will continue uninterrupted into the night.
Aruna Chandrasekhar contributed reporting.