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The Kaleidoscope of Hoof Prints

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(This follows my article The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL  of March 2, 2016)

If there are phrases on my tongue which connote the blessings that can unwittingly come in many disguises to the gentle-natured donkey, it is those plans and purpose which chanced upon as revealed in some events of “The Bible”. With Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016) followed by Easter (March 27, 2016) coming up, bringing in a time when it is not unusual for people to be religious in thoughts, I take a little liberty to reflect on those events.

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Animals like sheep, camel, donkey, have afforded their presence to many episodes of the Bible. Indeed there are momentous occasions when the donkey was part of events that were important junctures in the life of Jesus Christ.

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The ass of Palestine and the Bible has been identified as the Nubian wild ass of Egypt. This common beast of burden, used for agricultural work and also for riding, is not in the East by any means a despised or a despicable animal – but considered part of a moderate household. Whole families rode him, shared food with him, and sometimes allowed him to stay in a section of the room with the family.

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Visitation: It is related that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, used a donkey when she set out on her journey for her ‘Visitation’ to congratulate cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with the child who would one day become known as John the Baptist. According to tradition, that donkey had travelled about seventy miles from Nazareth over hills and through valleys to the little town in the Judaean hills where Elizabeth and her husband, priest Zachary dwelt. Considering that the feast of the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus is held on March 25th, this journey could probably have occurred during the last days of March or early April when the rainy season was just over. Although Joseph is not named in this journey, it is unlikely that Mary would have ventured on a long and arduous journey alone and abode with Elizabeth for about three months before she rode back to her home in Nazareth. Besides, it was customary to have a driver for the donkey, when women rode on them.

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To Bethlehem: The initial scenes of William Wyler’s biblical epic movie “Ben-Hur” (1959) portrays Joseph, a village carpenter, leading a meek donkey by the bridle, on which sat his pregnant wife Mary covered with a long cloak, during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea to enrol their names in a census which had been ordered by Caesar Augustus. The vague details of that journey of about seventy miles could be visualised as five days of privation, fatigue and discomfort through an uncomfortable path in the winter chill of December. A book on the Virgin Mary names this donkey as “Eleabthona”, but we could only wonder if it was the same animal which had previously been similarly used when Mary went on her “Visitation” to Elizabeth.

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To Jerusalem: Whichever donkey it was, that animal had the opportunity to be closer to the newly born Jesus in the stable outside Bethlehem. Besides, amongst the few other domesticated animals present there, he was the one who would render service as the mode of transport to Joseph’s family when, at the age of forty days, the infant Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for presentation in the Temple and return.

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To Egypt: Sometime thereafter, warned of an imminent danger to the child, the family hastily embarked on a journey in the middle of the night, with Mary and the child riding the donkey, as they rushed out of the territory of King Herod to retire into Egypt. With the winter still persisting, that journey of ten days covering about two hundred miles via the city of Pelusium (modern Tell el-Farama) was not without difficulties and dangers arising from cold, wet and stormy weather, lack of shelter over their heads, less water, attack by robbers and wild beasts, proceeding partially through the shifting sands of the desert as far as the land of Gessen, where they resided (1). Not until had King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, did they retire to the early home of Joseph and Mary at Nazareth of Galilee.

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Soon after, the donkey of those journeys slips into obscurity even though according to a recorded event of Jesus’ youth, at the age of twelve, Jesus was taken on a long journey to Jerusalem to attend the Passover before returning to Nazareth when the service of a donkey would have been required.

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It is widely held that the dark line down a donkey’s back and across the forequarters in the shape of a Latin cross denotes the heritage of that race from the day one of their forebears carried Jesus on its back during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is commemorated as the first Palm Sunday (Dominica in ramis Palmarum), and marks the beginning of what is technically called Passion Week.

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To Jerusalem: According to the Gospels, Jesus, having come to the little village of Bethphage (Beitphage) on the summit of the Mount of Olives sent two disciples into the village to fetch an ass and a colt they would find tied there. Having brought the animals, they cast their garments upon the ass and made Jesus sit thereon. (2) The animal carried Jesus, sitting meek and gentle on its back, as it treaded over the olive palm fronds strewn over the garments laid on the path, amidst the joy and singing of a multitude of accompanying people wielding branches of palm trees as a testimony of honour and respect.

At that time Jerusalem was surrounded with fertile fields and trees, and on the southern slope of Olivet, where they were passing, date-bearing palm trees grew in great abundance. The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward and it was the custom to carry and wave palm-branches as a sign of joy and victory.

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At length, the donkey carried Jesus down the hill, passed between the walls of Gethsemane and the Garden of Olives, crossed the Cedron valley (Kidron), through the road leading up to St. Stephen’s Gate (Lions’ Gate), and entered the Temple through the Golden Gate with its beautiful pillars. This occasion, commemorated on Palm Sunday with a Procession of Palms was customary in Jerusalem as early as 386 when it was first mentioned, and was adopted in the west by the seventh century as attested to by Isidore of Seville, who died in 636.

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Until the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the event was remembered in a folklorised ritual on Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) in some southern German speaking regions when, in addition to the tradition of the blessing of palms (Palmbüscheln), a procession known as “Palmesel” (Palm Sunday donkey) was held when a statue of Jesus mounted on a wooden effigy of an ass fixed on a wheeled wooden bier was taken round the streets spread with clothes and strewed with palm branches. To mark this joyous occasion, people sang hymns and waved fronds of palm or of some other similar tree, while at some places bouquets of flowers attached to boughs of trees were sometimes carried in the procession calling it the Easter of Flowers.

The ass was not forgotten either. A book on ecclesiastical architecture relates an old tradition that “the ass on which Christ made His entry into Jerusalem left Judea immediately after the Crucifixion, and passing over the sea dry-shod to Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Aquileia, finally reached Verona, where it lived to a very old age. After its death its bones were collected and deposited in the belly of the wooden ass of Santa Maria in Organo, which was made as a memorial of it and its exact image.”

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Just as that event at Jerusalem made them an object of peculiar reverence to the early Christians, the cross on its back inspired belief that children suffering from whooping cough will be cured if they are made to sit on the mark and the donkey walked in a circle nine times.

It is interesting to think, with what different sentiments one regards the donkey at different periods. The poor quadruped which tradition says earned its reputation for stupidity in the Garden of Eden when it could not remember its name when God asked it, is actually, as one of my friends wrote, a poorly understood animal.

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Ass, when properly kept, is a handsome animal – much stronger in proportion, and much more hardy than the horse. The positive efforts of institutions such as Kölner Zoo in Germany, The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, England, etc, very much help the welfare of the docile and friendly donkey to save them from becoming snapshots of a bygone era. Let us be glad that they are there and keep alive the age old tradition that to see a donkey will bring one the good luck. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

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Notes:

  1. According to some publications, the particular place where Joseph settled in Egypt is probably Metaryieh, near On/Heliopolis, about two hours distance north-east of Cairo.
  2. A Franciscan church, built on the foundation of an ancient shrine, stands to commemorate the place where Christ mounted the ass, contains a stone traditionally identified as used by Jesus to mount the ass for the journey to Jerusalem.
  3. Thanks to: Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, AG Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany for the picture of Michel and Jeanette; to Ms. Pippa Helock of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon for the picture “Looking Handsome”; and to Stefan Ahrens of Bistum Regensburg, Germany for the four pictures.
  4. Print and visual versions of “Ben-Hur” is available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.

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Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL

Poor little foal of an oppressed race!

I love the languid patience of thy face:

And oft with gentle hand I give thee bread,

And clap thy ragged coat, and pat thy head.” – Coleridge

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The German TV channel Deutsche Welle (DW) currently hosts weekly episodes of Tierisch Kölsch (Zoogeschichten/Zoo stories). Each episode features moments from the lives of many animals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians of Kölner Zoo (Cologne Zoo) in Germany – and is highly rated for being quite interesting, educational and inspiring. Amongst the inhabitants in that controlled environment are a couple of hairy Poitou donkeys (Poitou-Esel in German) tenderly looked after by the Tierpfleger (animal-carers) of the Kölner Zoo.

s2The Poitou donkeys (Poitou ass/Poitevin donkey/Baudet du Poitou), the breed from the Poitou region of France are notable for a number of unique characteristics. The two tenderfoots were brought to the Kölner Zoo: the female and smaller Jeanette, born in 2007, originated from the Heidelberg Zoo; the stallion Michel was brought over from Wilhelma (Der Zoologische-Botanische Garten) Stuttgart where he was born in 2013. Contrary to our know-how, the way by which Jeanette and Michel responded to the kindness, words, strokes and reassurances of the Tierpfleger specialized in equine behaviour was amazing.

Here we live in a place where animals of that species cannot be easily seen. Looking back I could remember having first seen them a long, long time ago when one of the Circus shows came to our city. But then, the couple of weak donkeys that the Circus paraded with colourful ribands tied to the stump of their tails were unexciting elements to cast a spell over our attention amidst a group of more fascinating animals attached to that Circus.

That was a time when traveling entertainers could be found on the pavements of Cochin: sword swallowers, acrobats, singing groups, snake charmers, … Bar a few, all seem to have disappeared like most of the birds that flew over Cochin before the city set on the path of development. Once upon a time, you could see huge light-coloured oxen with enormous horns pulling covered carts through the streets, bringing in heavy loads of trade ware for merchants at the Broadway. You could find them resting in an area behind the back wall of the Police camp near the market bridge leading to the Broadway.

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You could see cows, goats, cats, dogs, hen, duck, frogs everywhere while pigeons, sparrows, crows, butterflies, etc, flew around freely. How wonderful it felt to hear the chirping of the swallows and the song of the lark; to look up and see the eagles soaring in circles overhead, not far away. Now, most of them have relocated to the ecologically sensitive area of Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary or away to the hilly areas in the suburbs – with no chance to restore them to their old habitats. The stray dogs seem to have taken over to atone for their absence. Occasionally one could even see the odd elephants being taken somewhere. As for us, fortunately, we have a couple of purple-rumped Sunbirds (Leptocoma zeylonica) nesting by the air-ducts near the window-sunshade outside our dining room – their incessant happy chirping would gather momentum whenever our presence is known to them – joyous as though some little breeze had made their hearts light.

s4 Donkey, the animal that was once part of the drawing periods of our beginners’ classes at school together with rabbit, elephant, cow, birds, swan, etc and always present in the illustration books of alphabets to represent “D” is also known under the scientific name of Equus Asinus. If names are anything to go by, they are also called a moke, a burro, a cuddy. Always part of many legends and jokes, like many animals, the donkey was even regarded by the ancient Egyptians both as a god and a devil.

s5As an avid traveller, I have seen them labouring in the agriculture and laundry sectors, and pulling carts in various parts of India. Browsing the web, I had seen them on building sites or at brick kilns of some countries where they are engaged to work long hours to transport heavy load of bricks to and from the firing ovens.

In different cities of Yemen, there are quite a few of them used as pack animals, but not quite as much as I have seen in different parts of Europe where you could find them in all shapes, sizes, colours and coat texture.

The smaller types with woollier coats I saw in the London Zoo (reputedly the donkeys came to England with the Romans during their invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD) is believed to have ancestors who were exported to the United States (along with mules) by settlers who would later venture to improve the situation in the U S with good quality Spanish and Maltese stock.

The ancestors of donkey stock in Europe owe their settlement in Europe to the Romans while some might have entered through the close accessibility of Spain to Northern Africa. Crete, where Europe, North Africa and Middle East intersect in sea communication, could have had some linkage to the Europe-bound Roman cargos which also included donkeys. But, whatever the reason could be, the island of Chrysi of Crete is known as Gaidouronisi (Donkey) Island”.

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No sooner they were put to use as pack-asses or harnessed four-abreast to draw wagons, they spread throughout the Mediterranean islands where wine was produced, owing to their reliability, narrowness and delicacy of surefooted steps to till the land between the rows of vines on steeply terraced hillsides. While many of them found usage as working animals in French vineyards in the harvest of grapes, in Spain, they also became popular in tourism, festivals, pilgrimages and agriculture.

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Patient, sure-footed and persistent, not only the army found them useful, they are used for riding, for carrying passengers and luggage, to work in agriculture and farms, to carry water, maize, construction materials, crush sugarcane, pull giant hamster wheel to draw water from a well, recyclable rubbish materials, trekking, etc.. Beginning from a time when the ancients had only their own muscle power and that of their donkeys and oxen, the efforts of donkeys can be traced through the construction sites of the great pyramids, Basilica di San Pietro, Taj Mahal, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, etc.

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Some also developed an appetite for donkey meat which was one of the reasons they were initially domesticated by mankind counting also the facts that they are easy to control, eat less than a horse and live longer to about 40 years. I remember an old story about a couple of successful/unsuccessful Iberians engaged in the manufacture of chicken sausages. When the impoverished manufacturer was baffled about how the prosperous one sold his chicken sausages cheap and still made profit, he was secretly advised by the prosperous one to add donkey meat to chicken at 50-50 ratio as dead donkey meat came cheap. Yet, the impoverished one was appalled that he could not generate profit even after mixing the meat half-and-half with the chicken. He had done precisely as he was advised and certainly, their sausages were of same length and thickness. The mystery is soon unravelled. Well, the prosperous one did not mean to mix the meats half-and-half. He meant 50-50 – one donkey to one chicken. The penny has dropped.s9

Save for turning up on dinner plates and in salami, donkey milk, in which Egyptian Queen Cleopatra reputedly bathed, was also used as an infant feed replacement and supposedly good for premature babies, delicate children, people with asthma, eczema and psoriasis.

According to recent reports, the donkey population in India has suffered the highest downfall among all livestock during the last many years. Proper donkey care education, creating specialists in equine behavioural problems, availability of barns and bales of haylage, proper usage of their manure to produce compost, are major aspects for the welfare improvements of these gentle-natured creatures. Equally vital are the conservation of indigenous breeds of donkeys by perfecting artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology and ensure their genetic purity. Simultaneously, to learn patience to cope with their stubbornness and stupidity that can also be interpreted as part of donkey’s intelligent and naturally cautious attitude for not being pushed into situations of danger.

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Of some of the other common problems of donkeys I have heard of are the long hours they are made to work in soaring temperatures without adequate food, water and rest; the poor quality of saddles and bridles ignoring safety guidelines which could risk the rider as well; deficiency of support to donkey sanctuaries and donkey owners; lack of adoption opportunities; dietary issues; bad breath; skin problems; eye infections; blindness; and abandonment.

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Abandonment is a misfortune always facing pets. Many years ago I had come across donkeys, some stray, amidst the throngs of people in the dusty streets of the valley town before one heads through the magnificent groves of tall slender areca nut palms for the Ghat road in Tamil Nadu which twists and climbs through the fertile valleys and tree-cladded mountains and slopes of the Nilgiris to Ooty (Ootacumund/Udhagamandalam), the Queen of the Blue Mountains. I am not particularly sentimental about places just because they are familiar, but Ooty is a place of many memories. Stray or not – those donkeys  occasionally found luck with food from the hand outs of locals or by their owners, but are generally left alone to find a living on their own. I have not seen anyone brutalize or abuse these dear creatures although there were stories of how they frequently suffered from the hasty temper of their masters. At any rate, I had seen them resting by the road side, or standing in the middle of the intersection or even right in the middle of the road, deaf as a post – from time to time shaking their ears or tail – sometimes looking almost divine but mostly with a brooding look on their face. Very rarely have I found them nickering for joy.

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For the locals in the vicinity, these less sociable animals than horses are just a regular sight (1), their braying adding a steady undertone of sound though, at times, they are subjected to a good bray which they find a misfortune to hear at close range. But for the travellers and tourists passing through the valley, uninterested in the sights of the street cows, the sight of donkeys kindled curiosity, prompting some to convulse with laughter: “Oh, a donkey!” which often drew their accompanying kids to curiously gaze at them through the windows of their vehicles for a fine pastime.

The locals normally ignored with disgust anyone who mocked the donkeys. That is something old-fashioned they have learned from the donkey’s modesty to shut out the flattering comments which occasionally reached its over-sized ears. Probably being mocked at is a cross of misfortune they are always bound to carry – indeed, like the cross on their shoulders. (Continued in my next post) Jo

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Notes:

  1. The last time I passed through that valley by sunset, none of the donkeys were there.
  2. The pictures of Jeanette and Michel are courtesy of Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, Aktiengesellschaft Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany
  3. Many thanks to Ms. Pippa Hockin of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon, England for sharing the picture “Grazing” featured in this post.

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(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)