Published on 21st April, 2023, in The Hindu.
In the past 30 years, the donkey population of India has dropped by 90%. It’s sad, considering large donkey fairs have been held annually for centuries in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. We rarely think of donkeys as cultural icons. Yet, they are.
The wild donkey of Rann
As per Atharva Veda, gods such as Indra and Agni rode wagons pulled by donkeys, but the tempestuous horse always overshadows this humble hardworking beast. No great hymns for the donkey. The horse is linked to kings and warriors, while the donkey is linked to washermen, potters, and other such service providers. The horse is linked to Revanta, the radiant son of the sun, while the donkey to the goddesses Jyestha and Shitala, associated with misfortune and epidemics. If grooms rode into weddings on mares, criminals were paraded on donkeys.
The donkey was probably first domesticated in Africa by 3000 BCE. It made its way to Mesopotamia, as revealed in artwork, and probably even reached the Indus Valley, though evidence of this is debatable. In a 4,000-year-old seal (M-290), there is an image of a donkey-like animal, tough but not impossible to domesticate. This is the wild ass, the onager, found in the saline Rann of Kutch, where the Harappan stone city of Dholavira is located.
Curiously, the Tamil word for donkey, kaḻutai, has been etymologically deconstructed to mean ‘kicker of salt soil’ and, according to some scholars, indicates ancient memory of wild asses of the Rann of Kutch. Donkeys are traditionally more common in North India, in the drylands of Rajasthan, Malwa and Deccan, than in South India. In ancient Tamil (Sangam) poetry, it was linked to heroes and kings, indicating its high status probably. When referred to, it’s always in a coastal landscape, in marshy backwaters, where they crush shrimp ( Natrinai 278) and are bitten by sharks ( Akanānūru 120). All this suggests the memory of Rann of Kutch, even though the poetry and the land are separated by 1,500 years and 1,500 miles. This gives fodder to the theory that at least one Dravidian-speaking population migrated from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu maybe 3,000 years ago.
Salt and sterility
Donkeys and salt have another connection. In ancient times, a conquering king would plough his enemy’s field using donkeys and sow salt, rendering the land unfit for farming. This practice is referred to in kingdoms around the Mediterranean as well as India. Sangam poetry (Purananuru verse 15, 392) and king Kharavela’s inscriptions from Odisha (100 BCE) speak of this. Donkeys were thus associated with sterility.
In Maharashtra and Goa, 1,000-year-old stone tablets proclaiming land grants had images of a donkey copulating with a woman to deter trespassers. Known as ‘ gadhe-gal’ or ‘donkey-curse’, they were placed at the boundaries of farms, to mark territory. Not a literal threat, but a metaphorical one of sterility.
Behind the Krishna lore
The connection of salt pans and donkeys comes from Krishna lore. Balaram, Krishna’s elder brother, battles wild donkeys (the asura Dhenuka) who infest the grove of toddy palm trees in brackish lands, and converts it into a lovely garden.
Just south of Kutch, on the coast of Saurashtra, stood the legendary city of Krishna. As per Ghata Jataka, that retells the Buddhist version of Krishna lore, 10 wrestler brothers led by Vasudeva and Baladeva, who are enemies of Kamsa, proceed to conquer all of India. They realise Dwarka is protected by a donkey. Whenever the donkey brays, the city flies away. The brothers fall at the feet of the donkey and he agrees to delay his braying, allowing the brothers to pin the city to the ground with iron ploughs. Thus is the city conquered.
In Karnataka, in the 12th century Amrutheshwara temple, in the panel describing the birth of Krishna, we find an image of Krishna’s father, Vasudeva, bowing to a donkey. The story goes that this donkey would bray every time Vasudeva and Devaki would have a child. This would alert the tyrant king Kamsa, who would come to the quarters and kill Devaki’s newborn. When the eighth child was born, Vasudeva feared that the animal would bray again. So, as he is slipping out of the house, determined to take the baby across the river to Gokul, he bows to the donkey and begs him not to bray until he returns. The donkey agrees and thus Krishna is saved. This episode is not found in the textual traditions of Krishna’s life; but is very well presented, in this temple art.
Royalty in the mix
In North Indian Pahari miniature paintings (18th century), it is common to find Ravana sporting not just 10 human heads but an additional donkey head, while Hanuman is shown with five heads, one of them a horse. Is it a visual mockery of the great Brahmin? Not as per the Tibetan retelling of the Ramayana (8th century), which captures a forgotten folklore that Ravana’s life was locked in his donkey head.
Jain manuscripts speak of how a Jain monk got Sakas (Iranian nomadic tribes) from outside India to attack the city of Ujjain to rescue his sister who had been abducted by the king. He got them to shoot arrows into the mouth of the king’s magical donkey whose braying had the power to kill. The king’s son pushed back the Sakas and is famous in Indian lore as the legendary Vikramaditya. In Nath-jogi folklore, Vikramaditya’s father was in fact a cursed god, forced to take the form of a donkey. No one wanted to marry this donkey, but the princess who did became the mother of two great sons: Bhartrihari, the sage of sages, and Vikramaditya, the king of kings.