A donkey erects a brass city, marries a princess and each night rides on horseback round the world
Symbolic identification and self-knowledge
See: text of the myth
The narrator was reminded of the story when in January 1996 in the course of discussions between the collector and elder Vadar from the district of Ahmednagar (Maharashtra-India), an old man stated that the donkey is an incarnation, an avatar, of Hanuman. However he did not know the story behind it. The narrator was then present: on hearing this, he narrated the story to show how the donkey is a form of god. The myth belongs to the Vadar community which symbolically identifies itself on the one hand with the donkey, its faithful carrier, as it happens in other narratives of our corpus, and on the other hand with the god Hanuman, its divine emblem as is also usually the case. Three representations blend here as symbolic self-images, supports of identification and recognition for the Vadars: the donkey and Hanuman merged into the figure of a god, keystone of the community.
We are therefore directed to read the story as an articulation reflecting the insight which the Vadar community shares about itself through holding a discourse about the donkey, its very carrier, as the divine emblem of the community. The city population with its king remains alien to a message which is proclaimed to nobody, shines only in night and eventually lies wrapped up in darkness. But the narrative makes sense for that Vadar community, the addressee of the discourse, as a discursive cognitive exercise of self-recognition through the lot meted out to its own emblematic figure. But what sense is therein? What is the overall semantics of the story?
The Vadars to whom the story makes sense are one of a cluster of twelve castes which, in their own terms, call themselves "the kindred of the donkey", gadav gota (Gota refers to a caste, relations or kindred considered collectively). These castes are the following: Beldar, Ghisadi, Ghongadivale Vadar, Kaikadi, Kanjarbhat, Kathevadi, Kolhati, Kumbhar, Parit, Telangi, Vadar, Vaidu. The reason of their association is that all of them maintain donkeys as their main means of transport, work and livelihood. The donkey allows all of them to make a living and secure a sustenance. They form therefore a collective of castes, jati samuha, conscious of sharing on this account a common characteristics, viz., a similar rapport with the donkey. This prompts them to club themselves in the same combine. As a result their perception is that a bond of fraternity, bhavbandki, binds them up into a phratry of sorts, bhauki, a group of kinsmen, bhavband. On this ground they distinguish themselves as a cluster of castes, a gota, from the other communities.
All these castes fit by status in the village structure. Some live within the precincts of the village. Most of them remain outside of the village boundaries as nomadic communities and need the permission of the Patil to install their tents outside of the village walls. They are in relation with the village people for three or four days, one week at the most. Those who stay within the village community, mainly Kumbhar and Parit, engage themselves in the trade of donkeys: purchase and sale, keeping of pregnant she-ass, sale of male ass. Parits are those who are usually requested to bring a she-ass on heat to the male ass. A woman from the Vaidu community in need of protection would usually stay in a Parit family: she would anyway feel in security nowhere except among "the kindred of the donkey".
In the society, people by and large use to look down and mock the donkey. In common parlance, one is used to compare to a donkey the naive and idiotic fellow who works too hard; the one engaged in nonsensical occupation is compared to the donkey who frolics, sprawls and rolls over and over on the ground. The dictionary holds the domesticated ass as a colloquial figure of speech for "a stupid or foolish person," "an obstinate and sluggish fellow." In India, banks do not give loan for donkeys; Government services do not pay compensation for donkeys killed in an accident, and do not admit donkeys on work schemes opened in times of drought; veterinary doctors turn a deaf ear if they are called to examine a donkey. The kick of a donkey is supposed to be more violent than that of a horse, one should therefore not walk behind a donkey and be cautious. The donkey does not need fodder and can feed on heaps of garbage. The ghosts themselves fear a donkey and escape when they come across a donkey on their way. The donkey was a Gandharva and is therefore subject to the curse of god.
"The kindred of the donkey" consider quite differently their close work companion. Their attitude is comparable to that of the peasants who have consideration and respect for their bullocks; they worship their donkey the day peasant communities worship their bullock. They hold the donkey in high esteem.
A will to define and assert one's own collective identity and a claim for being recognised a corresponding dignified status are the motive drives which prompt the story of the donkey of the Kumbhar as narrated by Gadi Vadar. This intentionality is reflected in three cognitive operations which propound three answers. The three answers are logically homologous. They reinforce one another till the narrative reaches its peak.
A first process of symbolic recognition operates in most concrete terms with the donkey as self-image The referent of the discourse is here the most immediate level of experience of the Gadi Vadars, stoneworkers whose donkey is the familiar and faithful everyday carrier of stones. It is quite natural for those workers to entertain feelings of sympathy towards a close assistant dedicated to carry stones for them and earth for the Kumbhars, all his life. Vadars, Kumbhars and donkey alike deal with stone and earth all their life. Connivance and familiarity, a sort of affinity unites them. This is equally obvious in other narratives and supported by the observation of the relationship that Vadars and Kumbhars actually entertain with their donkeys. They may legitimately feel close to their work companion and consider him as a kind of alter-ego. On the basis of that close association of sorts, Vadars compose the present narrative to put a claim and express their quest of collective status and identity through the role that they direct the personage of the donkey to enact for them.
With this purpose, the drama forthwith opens with a claim decisively made by the donkey to marry the princess. That claim is at the outset definitely denied by the society. A Vadar is a shudra, a manual labourer. An individual of servile condition has no right whatsoever to pretend to the kingly status of a ruler. Such a pretence on the part of the servant of a king who has only one daughter amounts to a bid to be king. Such an offence can not but be severely repressed. The potter is well-advised to run away and save his life. He has indeed not the slightest idea of conspiring against the king and usurping a power which he is meant only to serve.
Another narrative stages a somehow comparable situation where the princess herself with the consensus of the king and king's council, resolves to marry "whoever is the best one in the whole world. The announcement was made in heaven and earth." The Vadar proved that he was actually that best one among gods and men. But the princess goes and lives at his place: the Vadar does not covet the throne; he entertains only expectations conform to his state: land with stones underneath. The king can therefore oblige with no reluctance. The Vadar just aims at showing his absolute excellence as a living being. And he does it in no time on the strength of his performance as a stoneworker capable of moving rocks.
In our present narrative it similarly takes no time to the donkey to win the princess. But the deed this time is much more dazzling and with no parallel. The performance is a direct challenge of the king's ability to accomplish a feat which is within his competence and duty: one naturally expects from a king a particular ability to build up a marvellous city. The king implicitly assumes and states the same when he quite appropriately challenges the donkey who covets his position to display a king's ability. And this is precisely what the donkey shows.
A Gadi Vadar is no less a builder than a king: his discourse puts a claim, on the strength of his competence as a builder, to surpass the king. The narrative stages the servant against the master and projects the superiority and excellence of the servant over his master. The conflict is opened and the master defeated through the discursive strategy of a servant capable of erecting a city made of brass and copper, in no time.
But the master is shrewd enough not to make it public. No one in the kingdom should ever recognise the definitive superiority of a subordinate. The too powerful servant is exiled in a region where there is no human being to hear about the feat and recognise the servant's ascendancy. A king assigned to residence in a palace built in the jungle is no more a king: without recognition there is no king nor power.
Eventually, the master of our story has won a double victory over his slave: he has added to his credit and glory a brass and copper city built up by his slave -a performance which actually eludes his own capacity and blatantly evidences his weakness- and rid himself of a worthy and right pretender to his throne. The control over the slave is complete: by appropriation of the performance and by denial of recognition of the competence.
Gadi Vadars see themselves as builders. Let us focus again on this self-perception and the consequent claim to recognition. The donkey is capable of tremendous deeds which demonstrate his professional excellence and grant him an inalienable supremacy. In the performance of their donkey Gadi Vadars stage and project their extraordinary occupational self-confidence and a persuasion of their strength and unparalleled skill.
That same conviction is stated in different ways in other narratives in which, most significantly, the Vadars make a point and are pleased to portray themselves as masons of palaces and cities mainly for kings. On the whole, they enjoy conceiving of themselves as dedicated servants of kings and saviours of kingdoms in critical circumstances. When they display their expertise and extraordinary work capacity it is very often for the sake of a whole kingdom to be maintained strong or simply saved from ruin. Gadi Vadar in their myths associate their occupational skill as builders more with palaces, kings' lineage and kingdoms than common houses for the man in the street.
The present myth is the most explicit of all in this respect. The display of strength in the instant construction in one night of a entire city made of brass and copper, a princely marriage secured by a donkey as due right, the regular living in a palace built by the king though at the heart of a jungle, all these facts are massive arguments to which the king can not but surrender. They logically contrast an undeniable hidden essence of power with contrary worldly appearances of subservience: the power to erect cities operates in the night and is kept unnoticed, a royal marriage and a royal couple live in a palace hidden in the middle of a jungle.
These logical oppositions are not mere mental play of opposites meant to eventually contemplate with complacency the hidden nature of the donkey. The narrative is no fancy tale. The donkey's tremendous capacity to build a lasting city, his matching a princess and his residence in a palace mean to carry and legitimate the claim of the Vadar community to a status of kshatriya. The servile animal is by essence a prince. A community with a low status makes a symbolic attempt to upgrade itself to the highest status on the strength of its performance as builder, a king's distinctive prerogative.
The third process of community recognition takes as ground the donkey projected as a divine entity. We already stressed at the other levels the pervading logic of binary opposition and inversion: here also it is in the middle of the night that a horse descends from heaven and stages a reversal of the apparent reality; the princely power of the donkey trulykshatriya and superhuman, denied recognition by city men in the day light, is fully deployed and manifested when darkness wraps the whole earth; the beast of burden is transfigured as to incorporate its proper form of god by an intervention from heaven which reverses its worldly subalternity. Then the "true story" can be realised and confessed by the queen: "The donkey is an incarnation, an avatar of god".
Let us not mistake the final statement of the discourse as the queen likely does: she seemingly understood nothing more than what the theological utterance itself stays about the divine nature of the donkey. But the queen is only an actant of the narrative. The actor of the discourse, the narrator and his community are not concerned with theology. Their narrative is not a theogony. The decisive intention and rationale behind the final radical semantic reversal is the creation by the Gadi Vadar of the donkey-god as the distinctive deity of their community and their collective emblem of recognition. The donkey in this regard can be paralleled -- being considered as his avatar -- with Hanuman a god or a guru that Vadars equally consider and own as their deity.
But the identification of the Vadars with their familiar animal carrier, through granting a status of avatar to that donkey, their symbolic self-image, proves a support of a much deeper and significant process of community self-recognition than their identification with Hanuman. Here Vadars take the initiative to create a god of their own and at their image to belong to. Hanuman was not at their image nor likely totally nominated at their initiative: they took it from symbolic idioms currently circulated and they semantically invested the given figure as they could. Through the donkey, they constitute themselves as a community of Gadi Vadars and secure a place in the society at large truly is account they were hitherto assigned a status of servility in society and a degraded, animal-like nature as human being. Through this self-authorized installation, as their god, of their intimate work companion whom they identify with in their every day life, they claim for themselves as stonebreakers another place in the prevailing system of social communication: a status of superior excellence. With their donkey-god they symbolically invest a society and conquer in it a place truly for themselves as Gadi Vadar, stonebreakers.
In short, the intention of the discourse is to invert a subordinated condition through a process of revelation of a hidden, powerful and divine nature. This is accomplished through creation of an appropriate emblem of self-recognition which truly incorporates one's everyday condition of servility in order to symbolically transfigure it.
The discourse remains a purely discursive strategy. It motivates no social historical event. Obviously, the queen keeps the secret for herself. The discourse does not transcend itself outside ahead in an historical event. The sole referent remains the condition of servility which is not in the least sought to be actually altered.
Still, once we have realised and shared the vision which the narrative displays, one may further try to fulfil the destiny of the text through reactivating its objective meaning, here and now. This would amount to understand ourselves through a confrontation of our condition with the vision and intentionality of the text. This exercise would take us out of the discourse itself and look for semantically equivalent historical referents in different contexts of life. This recontextualisation would give a new lease of life to a text which is damned to die out of definitive oblivion. This is sought to be achieved in programmes of cultural action undertaken first of all among the same subordinated communities to whom the narrative belongs, and among other similar groups of people who are likely to find some correspondence in their present context with the discursive strategy of the old text.
See also: structural analysis
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