A myth from the Vadar community:
structural analysis

A donkey erects a brass city, marries a princess and each night rides on horseback round the world

Appearance versus reality: logic of revelation

See: text of the myth

The crucial absolute binary opposition is between empirical appearance and true reality. A logic of revelation serves the purpose of the narrative: the true nature of the donkey remains hidden, unseen, unsaid, unclaimed and therefore unrecognised; the discourse is meant to reveal the truth about the donkey. The result is a radical inversion of status from subordination to supremacy with a claim to recognition of excellence. The narrative itself provides the key with the final statement which explicitly tells us what is to be understood.

The global structural pattern of the narrative can be visualised through a design of vertical ascension. The whole dynamics is one of assertion and vindication of supreme ascendancy through a discourse which progressively unfolds the donkey's hidden strength and power.

Binary oppositions: subordination versus ascendancy

Binary oppositions of subordination and ascendancy are constantly repeated in various sets of opposites. They follow each other through reversals of situation which mark the distinction of levels as the narrative unfolds step by step its semantic import. They constitute the pervading logical modality of the discourse. The narrative articulates them in three parts which may look like the three acts of a drama of progressive revelation. The discourse is addressed to those who share the same belief with regard to the donkey, in particular the community of the Vadars who recognize the donkey as the specific emblem of their caste.

We attempt to project the logical structure of each part in a table form as this helps underscore the semantically significant oppositions which we are to comment upon.

Act I - Repressive order and apparent stability

Sequence 1


Actual dependency

Donkey's claim rejected

  • Donkey, mute, submissive carrier
  • Claim denied as nonsensical
  • Man, absolute master of animal, is the only one to decide
  • Potter unable to depart with his donkey and survive
  • Potter decides to quit with his donkey to save his life

Resulting state

A servile beast of burden is not to be listened to or taken seriously

Sequence 2


Actual dependency

Potter's plan curbed

  • Potter, subordinated artisan
  • Attempt to quit simply repressed without appeal
  • King's absolute control over citizens
  • King can not depart with his potter
  • King orders potter to say to save the city

Resulting state

Total subordination and denial of autonomy for the donkey and potter


  1. Man reigns supreme over animal and King over citizens thanks to internalisation of established order
  2. Internal contradiction points to alternative order and possible instability, but it is actually covered up and not activated, it remains in a state of inertia

Donkey versus earth as a carrier

The donkey as a simple beast of burden carries soil and stone from the earth-stone and soil which in the underneath stand as the foundation of the whole world. Donkey as the potter's and Vadars' carrier may be projected as the one among all living beings who is the most closely related to the foundation of the world, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the shaping by the potter of earthen forms and construction by the Vadars of stone buildings. The donkey is implicitly associated with the basic realities which the world is made of and built with but as their pure carrier.

Donkey versus potter and potter versus king as a servant

At the level of visible daily performance of servile physical work, the donkey is subjected to men. He is perceived and treated by its masters as deprived of authority, capacity or will to act independently. The level of appearance or empirical realities visible under the light of the sun shows the donkey's obvious subservience. This subservient condition is reflected and duplicated in its master's own subordination to the king: the potter is scared of the king and completely submits to his will. He is easily forced to stay and open up his mind to the king.

The inverse of this total subordination of the donkey to the potter and of the potter to the king is, on the part of the potter and the donkey, the total dependency of the potter upon the donkey's physical labour as a carrier of the soil that he needs, and of the king upon the potter's work as there is no other potter in the town. This ambivalent semantic redundancy of subordination and dependency projects the donkey -- the central character of the narrative -- as the symbolic duplicate of his master. The master is obliged to the subaltern. Yet at the level of the daylight visibility none of the masters sees nor recognizes his obligation. The daylight can be said in this regard to be so strong as to act as a blinding clarity.

Act II - Ascendency denied recognition

Sequence 3

Challenge and trial taken up

Performance covered up

Demonstration of power

  • King orders potter to tell the truth: king challenged to give princess
  • King defies the donkey with a regal superhuman power performance
  • The deed of the donkey: display of divine strength
  • The demonstration of regal strength is achieved during the night
  • Exile of donkey and princess into a palace in the middle of the jungle where there is no human being

Resulting state

King and population respond with a no-recognition strategy to the display and claim of royal power and status

Donkey versus king as a builder

As a builder of a royal city, the donkey displays a miraculous strength. His tremendous genius transcends all expectations. The king can not but be taken aback in front of a competence which manifests itself as simply divine. The donkey gives a city to the king, a city that the king is supposedly the only one capable of offering to his citizens. The earthen pot of the potter, the donkey's master, gives way to metal walls and houses defying the ages. The one who carries soil and stones for potters (Kumbhars), builders (Vadars) and kings (kshatriyas) to build up earthwares, temples, houses, palaces and towns proves to be more powerful than all of them: he erects in no time a city which may last for ever. The donkey as city-builder is implicitly putting a claim to royal prerogatives and capacities.

But this happens only during the night. The daylight ignores the deed. The king only acknowledges the remarkable feat but does not recognize it. He sends the new king and queen live in the jungle, alone, outside of the world of human beings, in a world of beast which the donkey belongs to. The palace in the jungle for the king-donkey to live absolutely aloof from the society of human beings is redundant with the deed being performed during night only. The revelation of the miraculous donkey's strength shines only in the dark. Apparently no one in the kingdom knows about it. There is no denial either. The king is likely to own the deed as it is clear that the king only can perform such feats. There should be no denying this evidence. The king-donkey is ousted from the city of men and sent to live in a no man's land lest its demonstration of superior power be recognized in the day time of the society of men. The manifestation ought to be denied recognition.

Donkey versus princess as a ruler

At the level of those human relations which grant status in the city of men, the donkey as a stubborn animal -non-human form- is opposed to a princess -superior state of humanity-. Since the start, the donkey's demand to marry the princess is a claim to the status of a ruler, kshatriya. This claim of equality with a princess is forthwith denied: the potter itself in the name of the whole society of men rules out the idea. When the king acknowledges the fact of an actual right of the donkey to a status at par with the princess, a palace is built for both of them. But the palace - image of a superior state of humanity- is located out of the city of men, in the jungle -image of a savage state of life-. The new king and queen are not allowed to live in the brass and copper palace erected in the middle of the city of men. The signs of power and status ought to be kept out of the eyes of men lest their meaning be recognised.

Act III - Supremacy revealed and acknowledged

Sequence 4

Enthronement from heaven

Secret acknowledgement

Revelation of true nature

  • A horse descends from heaven
  • Donkey transformed into a prince
  • Royal ride on horseback around the whole world
  • The event happens in the middle of the night
  • When the queen only by chance wakes up

Final state

  1. The acknowledgement is a response forced by an external intervention
  2. The acknowledgement is not announced nor seemingly shared by the population nor the king
  3. Only the addressees of the discourse are seemingly meant to share, understand and own the meaning of the event

Revelation in the dark

The carrier of earth who uses to tread heavily on earth the whole day as a beast of burden, sits on the back of a horse descended from heaven and is carried all around the earth as its ruler. This happens for that short while in the middle of the night and deep in the forest-palace when one day is over and the next one is yet to come. The servile animal-slave is then being vested with the status of a kshatriya called by heaven to rule over the whole world. During this final and instant stage -a rift or a suspense between two days of this world- reveals the true identity of the donkey. Power and authority are revealed as his constitutive attributes. Still this glory shines in the darkest while of time and the most savage place on earth, though every night.

Under the sun in the day light and among civilised men in the city, the donkey's essence is and should remain invisible; only the princess happens to know about it -and the Vadars. But the queen is not seen proclaiming the secret that a luminous night revealed to her, and no one in the city would ever believe the discursive claim of the Vadars. The revelation takes place progressively, partially and occasionally but to be denied recognition in a progressively stronger and stronger manner. The shift of the scenes from daylight to night darkness is analogous of the unfolding revelatory process according to which what appears as a servile non-human being who is granted no respect proves to be a god-like power figure. The night darkness is illuminated but no one is there to see the truth which is revealed. The same progress in revelation is concomitantly homologous of a constantly harder and harder denial of recognition of the claim made by the revelatory process: the daylight is triumphantly blinding the sight of men to the nightly illumination The denial intensifies in proportion to the process of revelation.

The logical texture of the narrative is tight and flawless. Sets of opposition relentlessly succeed one another till the servile donkey is eventually granted what was denied to him at the start, viz., the glory and power due to a kshatriya. But the light which dawned upon the queen when the world is plunged in a deep sleep will remain blacked out for ever by the daylight.

See also: thematic analysis

Return to home page of Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (CCRSS, Pune)