Rugged and Harsh, but Colorful Madura

November 03, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Madura is an enchanting island, with a proximity to Java. One of the highlight of the journey to this close cousin of Java is the Karapan Sapi. Rugged, harsh but colourful, it's Madura!


A Glimpse of Java’s Old Cousin: Madura Island


Madurese people love to race their strongest and fastest oxen. In a 10 seconds battle, the 600 kg yoke run as fast as possible in the dirty track, dragging a wooden sled with a frenzy jockey try controlling the speed and more importantly, the direction of the animals. The  spectators yell and shout madly. Finally they succesfully hit the finish line, make the crowds become even more noisy and raucous. The winning yoke bring prestige and great pride not only to its owner, but also to its village. The spectacle is dramatic, energizing and vibrant, though outside kerapan sapi, Madura is a peaceful and quiet island.


Karapan sapi is a prestigious event for Madurese.Karapan sapi is a prestigious event for Madurese.There is a saying that Madurese treat their bulls better than their wives! I believe that…

When water buffalo is a primary livestock in Java, it is not the case for Madura. Water buffalo are rarely found in this hot and dry island; they would soon perish. Thus, Madurese raise ox instead. So, throughout the archipelago, sapi madura (madura’s ox) is highly regarded as a hardy breed, called for a very high price. Specialise in ox has made the Madurese develop a unique spectacle using this animal: the vibrant ox race, famously called kerapan sapi. Though how this slow animal can be a fast runner is still in question.


Just keep in mind that kerapan sapi (sometimes also pronounced 'karapan sapi') is actually a tournament. it is a championship compete for the presidential cup! started in villages throughout Madura, and culminated in Pamekasan in September or October.

The village round in Sumenep areaPreparing the oxen near the start lineThe village round in Sumenep area

I opted for the humble villages round, since I want the taste of the original flavour. Arrived in Madura in August, I based myself in Sumenep. It turned out that finding a kerapan sapi was a bit tricky. We had to ask a lot. Normally they are held on weekend, so time your arrival appropriately.


Finally someone gave me info and before noon the next day, I had arrived in Ambunten. Hundreds of people swarming a field in a scorching day, including sellers of variety of goods. As anywhere else, they took this event as a good business opportunity. People look excited and energized.


The dirt track has a wide of several tens of meters, one hundred meters in length. Near the start line were the yokes, jockeys and their official team. On the left is a podium full of juries, committee member and MC. A strange thing happend in the end of the track: there was a three meters high brick wall, only several meters from the finish line!

“God, do the oxen have to stop abruptly, or they will crash into the wall?”, I gasped.


Do they design it deliberately this way? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Sometimes Indonesian has a unique way in dealing with their problem, or maybe because I had my own problem: I had to find a good and more importantly, a save method to photographed near the finish line!


Back to the start line, 2-3 yoke of oxen were prepared, team up with a jockey each of them. Madurese give their yoke funny names such as “meteor”, “komet” (comet), or “roket” (rocket)! They hope for their animals to be as fast as their name. 

What happen near the start lineAnother candidateAnother thing took place near the start line

When everything was set, everyone was in silence, hold their breath, then the jury raise a flag and the bull charged furiously in the dry and dusty track, dragging a sled. The daredevil jockeys stood on the sled, holding the yoke’s tail. The raucous crowd roared and so was the MC shouted in madurese.

The daredevil jockey of Madura's Karapan SapiThe daredevil jockey of Madura's Karapan SapiThe jury raise a flag and the bull charged furiously in the dry and dusty track, dragging a sled. The daredevil jockeys stood on the sled, holding the yoke’s tail. Look at his hands.

It is not uncommon that they give the yoke a belt full of sharp nails and also hot chili! This is the answer of how to “help” this slow animal become a fast runner. Like I said, Indonesian has many stranges and peculiar ways to solve a problem.


For several seconds, everything was in chaos. The 600 kg oxen run madly, could reach speed of 50 kph and could choose any direction at their will! Even if they ran correctly to the finish line, the animals posed with another problem: the three-meter brick wall. Alas. How do I stop? Where is my handbrake? the oxen thought. Oh no…

FallingOften times the yoke 'beat' the jockey, also ran to the wrong way, to the start line, spectators, etc

As if to make this spectacle become even wilder, the brick wall and the fool-hardy spectators at the finish line made another turmoil at the end of every race. People burst in helter-skelter to the right, or to the left, depends on their speculation of yoke’s direction. It was like a miracle that the racing yoke didn’t crush into the wall (but sometimes to the people!). And add the fact that often times the yoke also ran to the wrong side, to the spectators, etc.


Watching kerapan sapi involves a certain degree of risk. It makes us as part of the game. If you want to see the village stages, make sure to keep yourself safe. The safest spot is near the start line. And always ready for the unexpected. For me, it was a blessing in disguise. I risked myself, I had to run with my tele and tripod everytime, but comeback with an exciting story for you.


That day, there were tens of race staged. I can feel the intense and heat of the competition. Winners were determined by the first leg to touch the finish line. Karapan sapi is a prestigious event for Madurese. A champion brings great honor upon the yoke’s owner and his village. To some extent the prestige is more than money, it can raise social status of the owner. They (sometimes even the whole village) protect the winning yoke, give them the best food and herbs they can. There is a saying that Madurese treat their bulls better than their wives! I believe that…


bicycle in front of Sumenep's grand mosque


Beside the wild yoke of oxen and frenzy jockeys, if you stay in Sumenep, you can tour this sleepy but historical town, enjoy the village lifes and some desserted beaches around.


Asta Tinggi Graveyard in SumenepMysterious carving (at least to me)Asta Tinggi Graveyard in Sumenep

Sights of Sumenep includes some historical buildings such as kraton (palace) of Panembahan Sumolo or Tumenggung Ario Notokusumo I (built in 1762) and an old and famous mosque named Masjid Jamik (1763). Both have a European and Chinese touch, built by the same architect who said was a Chinese fled from Batavia’s Chinese massacre at that time.


Madura has its own line of kings. Among them are Ario Notokusumo I and his father Bendoro Saud who ruled the eastern Madura (Sumenep Regency). There are many antiquities from their era. Another famous Sumenep’s king is Joko Tole or Secodiningrat; Islam’s successful spread in Madura is credited to this legendary leader. 

Asta Tinggi Graveyard in SumenepAsta Tinggi Graveyard in SumenepMadurese people are warm and friendly, one of the most friendliest people I've met throughout the archipelago

In the west, there was Prince Aros Baya who unified the whole Madura (at that time “Madura” was referred to Bangkalan and Sampang area). Aros Baya was also the first king to convert to Islam (15th century).


Either kings (west or east), had a good relation with Majapahit and even there is a rumour that the originator of Majapahit Kingdom was a king or a royal member of Sumenep’s dynasti. Though after all, Trunojoyo challenged the Mataram hegemony around 17th century (the Islam Mataram replaced Hindu Majapahit as the most powerful kingdom in Java). Throughout history, there are times when Madura island fell under Java’s sovereignty and vice versa. 

Historical Grand Mosque of SumenepMasjid Jamik's unique architecture

Entering the mosqueA mixed of Chinese and European in Masjid Jamik's architecture is evident in this picture.

If we leave the kings and princes and their palaces and heirlooms, and back to the real life, we will find the village life of Madura, sometimes with its high-roof traditional houses as an interesting thing to see. Contrary to my prior belief, the island is sparsely populated, the life is slow and peaceful. The people are warm and friendly. In the interior, Madurese tend to be farmer though their land is not as fertile as their big brother Java. On the coastal area, Madurese is a reputable fishermen, noted for their vibrant and briliiant color wooden boats (you can see the samples in Jimbaran, Bali).

Asta Tinggi Graveyard in SumenepNaturally, Madurese are religious people

Madura Island is in close proximity to Java and Bali, but a different world in their own. Since this edition is published in September, you still have a good chance to experience Madura Island with its vibrant and wild kerapan sapi and the life of its people. It is held annualy on August –October. Just make sure you don’t stand stiffly and glued on the finish line!


Fadil Aziz.

(This story was published in Bali and Beyond Magazine in October 2013 with our original text with minor changes.)

Sumenep sunsetSumenep sunset



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