Seated on a shady side of an open top bullock cart, my entire body sways side to side. The weather isn’t too warm but the occasional breeze makes up for the heaty afternoon. The bull in front has a calm and easy-going rhythm to the way he moves, pulling the cart along with him, munching on a bit of grass. The cart owner bites on a chunk of puwak as he hums a slow song to himself. It’s a bumpy, yet quiet experience, riding the bullock cart; a dying form of transportation unfortunately.
It’s hard to trace back as to when exactly they came into existence. Some argue that it was along the time the wheel was invented. Our people of the island walked everywhere; to fill their baskets with food, water, collect hay or lumber or they simply rode an animal and tied their belongings to it. However, it was apparent that the chosen farm animal, be it a horse or donkey, could not carry heavy loads by itself, and a more sustainable and feasible mode of transporting goods was required.
Structure and use of the cart
And so, the bullock cart was invented. Made of light wood, sometimes even bamboo, and tied together with strong rope, the cart was the sole mode of transportation for many years and was later used to transport items such as wood blocks, hay, barrels of kerosene and laundry over long distances that could not be made on foot. Gradually, large quantities of agrarian goods and even lumber were transported on certain occasions.
The bull became the most ideal animal to use to harness onto the cart and pull it along, as it was much stronger and agile than a horse or donkey, and was able to travel longer distances with larger loads. The bullock cart was typically two-wheeled and led by one or two bulls. The cart was sometimes hooded and sometimes not. I’m told that usually depended on the area the cart was made and what it carried. The style of the cart also differed depending on the area and culture of the people who rode it. However, the structure always remained the same.
The body of the cart was about 9ft long and 3ft wide. It had a flat frame and bottom, made of light and airy wood that wasn’t too heavy. The handles and hooded parts were made of bamboo which is also light wood. The wheels were made of wood too. At the front, the one or two bulls were harnessed to the cart with the use of wooden planks and thick rope. The space between the two wheels was for passengers to sit comfortably. In time to come, cushions and seat covers were also added.
Apart from being used to transport goods, when it came to the islanders using it as a mode of transportation, it was a symbol of social status; those of the higher echelons and status in society rode carts that were different to those ridden by the commoners.
They were a common sight in the city of Galle; this was because it was a trading hub and many goods needed to be transported to other parts of the island. The easiest and cheapest way to get them across was to hire a bullock cart although they tended to take a few days on the road.
A laid-back lifestyle
We stop by a small lake so that the bull can take a break and hydrate itself. I’d forgotten to bring along a bottle of water, so the cart owner walks towards a small shack and buys me one. He hands it over and then goes to sit by a shady tree, still munching on his puwak. There’s a paddy field just beside the lake so I hop off the cart and decide to take a walk around. The air feels fresh and clean here. There’s only the sound of the leaves being brushed by the wind and a far-off call of a bird. Apart from that, it’s quiet and peaceful. It’s clear that the life of those in the village and other rural areas has a way of calming you; unlike the busy, bustling city life filled with noise and congestion.
We spend a good half an hour this way; the bull lapping water and munching on grass, the cart owner humming to himself and I, just breathing in the fresh air. Back on the cart, there’s still plenty of ventilation and a good view of the surrounding as we ride past more paddy fields. The sky thankfully remains blue and dotted with a few fluffy white clouds. There’s the occasional shout from the cart owner to ensure the bull stays on course and does not deviate from the route. I may have nodded off a few times along the way.
Although it was a mode of transportation that barely cost much, and one that caused absolutely no pollution to the environment, the life of the cart owner was certainly not a fancy one. Caring for the bulls was also relatively quite easy, however the cart owners had to travel long distances by themselves and endure plenty of discomfort and hardship along the way. Problems that arose had to be dealt with singlehandedly. Loneliness was a common friend. To pass the time and lament their sorrows and worries, the men used to create kavi.
Laments and a rare sight
Karaththa kavi were sung by the cart owner, transporting goods along rough and long distances, and empathised with the plights and difficulties faced. Some argue that the folk songs, a big part of Sri Lankan life for centuries, also empathised with the plight of the bull because those who were Buddhist were against animal cruelty. In one, the lyricist seems to regret his unkind and unjust treatment of the animal, as he had prodded it with the sharp end of a stick and smacked it. In another, there’s empathy towards both the bull and the man, as both are seen as victims of karma. There was certainly a great deal of depth in the composition of these kavi, and truth as well.
The slow and unsteady speed and ride of the bullock cart, and of course the rise of other modes of transportation gradually led to its rarity of use. As a dying mode in today’s day and age, it is a rare, yet exotic sight in the eyes of plenty. Unfortunately, it is hard to see bullock carts in use even to date in the rural parts of the island, although it is commonly used as an attraction amongst tourists in some hotels and during weddings when the couple leave the ceremony hall.
These bullock carts are sometimes decorated gaily and the bulls are also decked in the most colourful attire. I’m not keen on this idea although some don’t seem to mind. The one I’m just about to get off is as simple as it gets and I believe, that’s exactly how it should be. As I thank and bid adieu to the cart owner, I can see the underlying sadness in his eyes. This trade, or rather mode of earning a living, will probably die with him. There’s no saying it will continue to exist in the near future.