Ode to Bovines, Donkeys, Egyptian Donkey Trainers & Corona Virus


images-3For a long time, Preeti had not written on cows — not that it was her favourite animal — but definitely it demanded attention. Then she saw this picture on Facebook of an Indian bovine looking introspectively into an empty bus and putting a foot forward as if to amble into the vehicle for a ride. Then she saw another picture of a cow gazing into a car –maybe to ask for a ride too? She knew now the time had come for her to pick up her pen and write. Both were brown female cows because they lacked humps. She recalled the book she read to her son in kindergarten — about a camel called Alice having five humps. Female camels could have humps but not cows. Only bulls had humps.

This time she found fodder not on bovines, as they had become a source of controversies, but on donkeys. Remember, from Preeti’s earlier story — she lived in countries that were not cow friendly in their outlook but served veal for dinner.

A friend of hers had invited her home and cooked a scrumptious dinner. She was regaled with the story of a donkey ride in Egypt during the meal. These friends of hers did not eat veal, mind you, they were friends from her own country.

Then another friend of a friend who was a ‘pure’ vegetarian and ate rasam to battle corona virus, repeated the same story — a trip across the desert to a temple on donkey back… and unaccompanied. So, it seems this is what happened — to both the friends. (Preeti has decided not to disclose the name of the temple as it could deter donkey owners’ businesses in Egypt — and Preeti was a kind soul.)

It was truly necessary she wrote about it before it became a populist trend like denigrating a country for starting an epidemic.

images-8Friends, non – veg and ‘pure’ veg, went with separate groups at different points of time to check out temples in Egypt! They met some enterprising guides who offered them the choice of donkeys or jeeps to ride to the temples. Preeti could not figure out if it were the same guides. Both the parties opted for donkeys instead of jeeps — the reasons could be various, saving petrol, keeping the environment clean or maybe just pure fun and adventure — the reasons were not disclosed by both friends to Preeti.

They went to the donkeys. The donkeys did not have a proper saddle, but quilted cloth folded and placed on their backs. The tourists had already paid — so there was no backing off.

They had to climb the donkeys on their own. Only a four-year-old child was helped by the parent. The donkey trainers trained the tourists to turn the donkeys left and right by tweaking their ears (or was it their mane?) — Preeti had forgotten. And then the trainers gave a sharp whack to the donkeys back and the four-legged wronged animal started off at a trot — slipping on the desert sand occasionally. The only person having fun was the four-year-old — the adults were all in a state of panic because the trainers stood behind and watched the fun as they explained the donkeys knew the way.

The donkeys even took them across a highway with speeding cars and trucks and buses and more… without trainers…

Preeti did not satisfy my curiosity completely because she did not tell me about the donkey ride back from the temple — she forgot or was too polite to enquire! Or, had she been laughing too much?

Culturally, donkeys had been a part of the Egyptian civilisation from the Maadi period, 3500 BCE. They were tamed and used as beasts of burden and for rides. Despite that, they were not depicted much in Egyptian paintings of yore because they were said to be lacking in class and wealth — though they helped generate wealth! That was a time, long before man and animals encroached into each other’s territory, long before SARS or Corona Virus skipped over to human territory

In those days, the donkey or the Equius Asinus was a load carrier, plougher — much like bullocks in India— and transported people in Ancient Egypt. An Old Kingdom tomb-chapel relief depicts an official sitting on a wooden box hung between two donkeys — sounds almost like a bullock cart, except, the bullocks pull the carts that even now every now and then dot the highways of India.

A biography of the Sixth Dynasty reports that 300 donkeys were used as carriers across the desert…. Preeti always thought it was camels, but her research zoned in to the fact that Egyptians could not have done without donkeys as current day Indians without bovines. Further readings in Brittanica said that donkeys were first tamed in this region

 “The donkey, which was the principal transport animal (the camel did not become common until Roman times), was probably domesticated in the region.”

And yet, the unsympathetic ‘pure’ vegetarian and non- vegetarian friends of Preeti laughed and slighted the donkey and the donkey trainers— though when they were on the animal backs, they confessed they were praying for their lives. The donkeys were after all not cows from India, who needed to be venerated.

The importance of the donkey can well be understood in Egyptian cultures because when they don’t have zebras in zoos, they paint donkeys to look like zebras. A BBC report said so in 2018.

Preeti says they probably got caught because her research showed that the Zebra always has a black snout and parallel stripes whereas a donkey has a nose in keeping with the colour of his fur — so it could be brown, white or black or whatever. If I had to paint a zebra of a donkey, I would have chosen a black one or at least one with a black snout and then done the stripes. The other thing is donkeys have larger and more pointed ears. I do not know how one can solve that issue! But then, would one have a Zebra’s ear- dimensions near at hand to make a comparison? I would not know. Neither did Preeti — maybe, the Egyptian zoo owner did! I cannot think like an Egyptian zoo owner because I do not own a zoo in Egypt.

The other thing is donkeys can be found everywhere. Preeti had a friend in Italy who worked in a donkey farm and often posted pictures of donkeys on Facebook. Once, I even saw a donkey grazing under the Great Wall in China. He focused on the green grass, oblivious to the excitement he was stirring in my children’s heart so much so that my then four-year-old wanted to pull his tail. They had always lived in big cities where donkeys were uncommon, unlike cows in Delhi or Mumbai which can block traffic for miles on end if they decide to park themselves in the middle of a road, which they do occasionally. Donkeys on the other hand are not that common a site in Delhi or Mumbai. But one has to admit that donkeys are truly cosmopolitan— they have found a home in probably majority of the countries, eventhough they cannot easily be spotted in big cities.

What of cows and bullocks and camels?

Talking of camels, their South American cousins, llamas, have no humps and, according to Tin Tin comics, can spit if you tickle them under the chin and say kili-kili-kili (like Captain Haddock). I had seen llamas in California — they almost looked meditative like the Tibetan lamas as they gazed at a distance. They did not spit at us because, I guess, we never intruded on them and watched them from a distance, which brings me to a strange desire of Preeti’s — she wants to explore Egypt on camel back even though they came in as human helpers only in times of Romans, around 30 BCE. She does not know what it feels like to be on camel back — I did have a ride with my then four or five-year-old in Rajasthan. While my son was delighted, I felt my innards ride up to my neck and we swayed like a swing. I was wishing myself off it as soon as I sat on it. I told Preeti.

But Preeti is adamant and she won’t listen to me. She has now decided to postpone her Egyptian trip till the donkey trainers find camels to ferry visitors — though if they think of leaving the visitors alone for a tête-à-tête with the taller ship of the desert, I wonder what would happen!