The Famous Mannar Donkeys of Sri Lanka
I well remember during my young school days that if students were weak in their studies and behaved lazily, the teacher scolded them, saying, “Don’t behave like donkeys.” From that time on I was eager to behold a donkey, see what it looked like and discover from where it came.
Years later when I had commenced my working life and received a transfer to Mannar, my friends cautioned me about the many stray donkeys which mingle with the public there. They went on to say that some donkeys even grab one’s luggage or any parcel one happens to be carrying at the bus stand and start munching on it. The stories got bolder. Others warned that people wearing saris, sarongs or vertis were easy prey for these feral creatures as they crept up on one, grabbed the fabric and commenced to chew due to their hunger. In addition, donkeys were known to come running in a pack, one behind the other, achieving speeds of twenty kilometres an hour. They were usually being chased by a more aggressive donkey, before colliding into unsuspecting pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles – you name it – and sometimes causing serious injury.
These donkeys of Mannar are fascinating former ‘beasts of burden’, scientifically identified as Equus Africanus Asinus, and known to be the descendants of those introduced to Sri Lanka from Somalia, being brought over by Arabian traders very many centuries ago. These beasts carried the traders’ merchandise (primarily Sri Lanka’s famous spices) to the interior of the country. They were also used as the local taxi service, carrying wives and children to their various destinations. In earlier times the donkeys were well behaved, reared well and calm, very much like our domesticated cows, sheep and goats.
The ancestors of the donkeys that roam the streets of Mannar Island and the mainland today apparently served a dual purpose. It is believed that these donkeys, used as pack animals particularly by Dhobi families. The Dhobis washed their customers’ dirty linen in the ponds, dried the items in the hot sun and later ironed them using the primitive method of charcoal fired implements, before delivering the gleaming end product to their customers’ door.
Historical stories about the Mannar Dhobis recollected that in the good old days each family was well stocked with donkeys, having between ten and twenty animals to transport the cloth packs to and from the ponds. Some school books were illustrated with drawings of donkeys carrying two heavy cloth packs on their back with the owner proudly walking in front. The animals were held in such high esteem that when the Dhobis gave their daughters in marriage, part of the dowry to thee son in law would include two or three pairs of donkeys. Earlier these donkeys were branded to make no doubt on who owned them.
Of equal significance, was the value of the donkeys in keeping at bay the coconut beetle. They possessed certain insect repellent qualities which dispelled the red and black coconut weevil. Some believed that the donkeys’ peculiar high pitched ‘hee haw’ repulsed the beetles that destroyed the young coconut shoots of the coconut plantations of Mannar. Others believed that the odour of their dung repelled the beetles from young shoots.
Ever since the first ancestral domestic breeds, donkeys have been actively reared as domestic animals by people in Sri Lanka especially in the North Western coastal belt. Today they are nobody’s property. They roam free, with a rapidly expanding population and causing urban headaches. Tourists eager to get to the picturesque beaches of Mannar before the scorching heat of the day zaps their reserves, soon encounter these furry donkeys in all their colourful splendour and vanity. They quickly forget about the beach and instead refocus their gaze on these wonderful creatures which are much more colourful than the pedestrian grey hues which we generally associate with this animal. The zoologists says there are five different breeds of donkeys in Sri Lanka, some being greyish white, brownish chocolate to a carroty rustic shade , white ash, rare black or a pale sandy brown colour. The cute little foals are a delight to behold. They are like dolls, dark in colour with puffy hair with dark bright eyes. They go behind the mother for more milk and the mother playfully nuzzles it, keeping a close eye on the nearby cows.
Why are there such high numbers of donkeys in Mannar? It could be that Mannar’s arid climatic conditions are favourable. Dotted across Mannar are vast grassy patches on which they graze, happy and carefree .They eat anything what they want, grass, leaves, fruits, vegetable, paper, clothes, and specially grass roots. Their teeth are very strong, being similar to horses. If they get any mites on their skin they roll on salty beach sand or ash piles to be rid of these annoying insects. However in the urban areas, their diet is limited to scraps and most prominently, plastic bags.
Frequently, donkeys fight each other, especially the males, and at the end all that’s left are gaping wounds in their face and neck. Their neck is very strong and they also have excellent balance, being able to position their front legs on the ground and deliver a powerful flash of a kick with both hind legs. Sometimes the targets are children or vehicles and the result, serious injury or expensive damage. Traffic police cannot control these beasts who wander onto highways, nor can officers of the Mannar Urban Council. They have tried many methods to chase these animals away but all in vain. Five years ago this problem was raised at the Government administration office, the Kachcheri. They spent a lot of money to catch 100 donkeys and transported them to mainland forest areas. Later farmers of the vicinity started complaining that these stray animals had damaged their cultivation crops. After that the mission was abandoned. Stray donkeys are now a common sight in Mannar Town, roaming in the busy bi-lanes and main streets. These creatures comfortably mingle with people, dogs, cows and even the occasional goat. According to Kachcheri statistics there are more than 500 donkeys on Mannar Island and is of no current use for the public unless as a central attraction for tourists and other outsiders.
Could these animals be trained for a worthwhile purpose? Of course, yes! When I was in Greece in 1990, I visited many villages in Anthousa, Tripoli, Athens and the Isle of Crete famous for its Madonna churches and where these donkeys, of course of a different breed, were put to many useful purposes. On Sundays, I have seen devotes come to the orthodox churches on donkeys. These donkeys carry elderly ladies, young children and also small wine barrels on their back, complete with seating devices and belt. The worshipers ride to church and tie up the animals at the olive trees. This animal could carry 50 to 80 kilograms of weight, their feet having a good grip sufficient to climb mountains with heavy loads. Farmers also used the creatures for carrying their equipment to the field, and some were used to drag small ploughs in their grapes field. These donkeys were well behaved, very calm, never kicked with their hind legs, did not chase or run behind. They also appeared well-nourished and played with little ones. The Bible tells of Jesus Christ riding to church upon a donkey.
These fascinating and numerous creatures, the donkeys, are the jewels in Mannar Island’s crown, making them an inseparable and distinct part of the town’s identity. In the best of ways, Mannar is synonymous with donkeys, and donkeys with Mannar. Even though a rare sight outside Mannar Island, these donkeys are certainly a species that needs not to be taken for granted and definitely needs protecting.
Mr Peter Sinclair
Freelance Project Consultant & Trainer