When the going got tough and steep

Uditha Wijesena recalls the ancient form of carting

The dry eastern mountain slopes of the Badulla district still have some remote areas that need the service of pack bulls. Though carting has all but vanished in most parts of the country, these villages still hold clans of traditional upcountry carter families that practise the ancient form of carting which is narrated in the old karaththa kavi (song and verse of carters to ease off lonesome and weary days).
One such kavi goes thus.

Rare sight: The Thandale where three bulls are used to pull the cart and (inset) statue of Nandi Bull

Thandale denna depole dakkanawa
Katukele gale noliha wada denawa
Haputale kanda dekala bada danawa
Pawkala gono adapan haputal yanawa.

This relates to the positions of oxen on the cart that were used when the going got tough and steeper. Many of us are familiar with the cart with two bullocks. There was a third bull in the position known as Thandale when the going got tough and steep as related to the Haputale climb, which is a difficult task even for modern day internal combustion engines.

The Thandale is now a rare sight, but if you are lucky as I was once, you would see it being utilized in the fuelwood transporting carts that come into the Badulla town from Thaldena, Meegahakiula and Kandeketiya in the outskirts of Badulla.

Our ancient carter was compassionate as taught by the Nandivisala Jathaka in providing extra pulling power to the cart, refraining from the habits of beating and biting the tail of the bull when the going got tough.

Hindu mythology speaks of the warring Sura and Asura (the positive and the negative forces) uniting to churn the milky ocean with Mount Mandaranchal as the tool, using Vasuki the serpent as a rope to obtain the immortal nectar. In the process Halaahala the lethal poison was to emerge. Knowing the danger none of the Suras or Asuras ventured near it. As everyone ran away Lord Siva followed by Nandi his faithful bull came forward to counteract the poison. Siva drank the poison, but it was intercepted at the throat by his consort. In the process some poison was to spill on the ground and Nandi drank it off the ground. Everyone was shocked, fearing what would become of Nandi. Lord Siva calmed their fears saying, "Nandi has surrendered into me so completely that he has all my powers and my protection". Thus Nandi the faithful is located at every abode of Siva positioned so that he keeps watch just outside the entrance.

Nandi may have a link to Nandivisala in the Buddhist Jathaka tale, as Buddha used existing religious beliefs and practices to make a strong point. The Bodhisatwa was born a bull named Nandivisala. Nandivisala when young was given to a Brahmin who cared for and looked after him. When Nandivisala grew up he suggested to the Brahmin that he would draw one hundred carts for a wager to show his gratitude to the Brahmin. The Brahmin boasted about the bull to his friends and had a wager for one thousand with them. On the appointed day he loaded one hundred carts, lashed them together, and having tied Nandivisala to the first, commanded, "Now, you rascal, pull." The bull, very offended, would not budge an inch, and the Brahmin lost his money.

As the Brahmin lay groaning, Nandivisala went to him and said that he should not have abused him. He then asked him to wager two thousand, and said that this time he would win. This the Brahmin did, and the next day, having tied one hundred carts together, he yoked Nandivisala to the first and stroked his back saying, "Now then, my fine fellow, pull." With one heave, Nandivisala pulled the carts, and the last cart stood where the first had been. The Brahmin was to receive many gifts in addition to the wager. Both these stories relate the faithfulness, the strength and the power that the bovine possess.

The bovine has thus been in the religion and culture of India and Sri Lanka, being the supper beast of burden in agriculture and transport. Indian and Hindu culture places him on a high pedestal with relation to Nandi and Lord Siva; in Sri Lanka based on the Buddhist teaching of compassion they were considered as close relatives and were addressed as “wahudaruwo.”(Bovine children) Ancient Sri Lankan culture was based on rice farming and much of the technology adopted was related to the bovine. Its energies were used from the plough to the threshing bed (kamatha) and transport of the produce.

Their relation with man was fractured in the colonial period with the habit of consuming its meat. But with the tea trade beginning to flourish, the bull was again the most sought after draft animal in the organized network of transporting tea from the central hills to Colombo. They were saddled up with jute pouches as pack bulls in difficult terrain and were yoked on to carts that plied on dirt tracks opened up for speedier transport.

Both these forms of transport in our country are now limited to certain very remote locations while the cart bull has vanished from the city almost totally in the last two

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