The Asian Bullock Cart, Still Rolling Along

The Asian Bullock Cart, Still Rolling Along

When you’re travelling in Asia, it’s always fun to leave behind the big, crowded cities – exciting though they may be – and head out into the countryside. 

The pace of life here is refreshingly slow. The small towns and villages are full of colour. The paddy fields have a timeless feel. And you may even see that abiding symbol of Asian rural life, the bullock cart.

Bullock carts have been used in Asia and elsewhere for thousands of years, as an essential means of transporting goods and passengers. Carts that look similar to the ones used today can be seen on bas relief sculptures on the Bayon temple in Angkor, Cambodia, built in the 12th or early 13th century.

Some believe the first bullock cart was built in Europe or West Asia before 3000 BC, as a natural extension of the invention of the wheel a few hundred years earlier.  

Traditional bullock carts in Cambodia. Image: © Alan Williams

A bullock cart or ox cart is simply a traditional wooden cart, with two or four wheels, pulled by oxen or bullocks, which are both names for domesticated and often castrated male cows. Buffaloes are sometimes also used.  

A traveller who sees a bullock cart at work in the Asian countryside is likely to feel mixed emotions: pleasure at seeing an age-old tradition and concern for the welfare of the oxen who toil away, tied to the yoke.

There’s no fixed design for the carts. The driver sits in front, where he can control the oxen, with his goods behind him. If he’s carrying passengers, they usually sit beside him. Some carts are open, some covered. Some use bamboo in their construction.  

A common factor is the huge, spoked wheels that give the carts their distinctive look. But even here are differences; most wheels seem to have 12 spokes but I’ve seen carts in Nepal with double that number.  

A bullock cart in Nepal with elaborately-spoked wheels. Image: © Alan Williams

The fact that you still see ox carts as often as you do in the 21st century is testament to their staying power and their fundamental role in Asian rural life. You’ll find them on the back roads of India, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, among other countries.   

But their numbers are dwindling. They are gradually being replaced by tractors and other motorised transport throughout Asia. In 2012, for instance, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper reported that the bullock cart was disappearing from rural Cambodia because of the use of engine-driven tractors. 

A government official lamented that Cambodia’s tradition and history were being sacrificed in the drive to modernise and adopt new technologies.

A similar story emerged in 2017 near Mandalay in northern Myanmar. The Myanmar Times newspaper reported that bullock cart taxis were about to disappear from the town of Mingun because of the introduction of tuk-tuks, three-wheeled motorcycles, in the area two years earlier.

Bullock carts face competition from tractors in Nepal. Image: © Alan Williams

Not surprisingly, bullock carts disappeared from Singapore’s roads far earlier. They were once a popular means of transport, carrying goods and water, but began to make way for motorised vehicles in the latter half of the 19th century as Singapore started to develop into the modern city it is today.  

In some Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia, the carts are also used for another purpose: bullock cart races. In India, these have sparked strong emotions, with animal rights groups saying they amount to cruelty to the bullocks. In October 2018, the Karnataka state government was engaged in a Supreme Court battle with the animal rights group PETA India, which wants the races banned.

Less controversially, the carts are also used to carry tourists in many countries, giving them a taste of life in the Asian countryside. The few remaining bullock carts in Mingun in Myanmar, for instance, take tourists on tours to the area’s pagodas and other historic sites. But tuk-tuks are moving in on this market too. They have shock absorbers to shield passengers from bumpy roads; bullock carts don’t.

In Malaysia, where bullock carts were widely used until the early 20th century, they are now most commonly seen ferrying visitors in Malacca and other tourist spots.

A bullock cart in Kerala in southern India. Image: © Alan Williams

In Nepal, the bullock cart has long been a traditional means of transport for the Tharu people who live in and around Chitwan and Bardia national parks in the southern Terai region. Bullock cart rides through Tharu villages are now a popular draw among travellers staying in the parks. 

Tour operators in Cambodia also offer bullock cart rides, including trips from Siem Reap to the nearby Tonle Sap freshwater lake. And in Sri Lanka, travellers can take similar rides in the area around Sigiriya rock fortress and elsewhere.

India remains a bullock cart stronghold. The carts continue to play an important role in the country’s rural life. By many accounts there are at least 13 million of them operating today.

Of these, about one million are said to be fitted with rubber tires rather than traditional wooden wheels. Some of the tires are pneumatic, some solid rubber. These carts may be less picturesque but can travel faster, earning more money for their owners and reducing the burden on the oxen. Other countries have also been adopting this change.

Bullock carts with rubber tyres in central Cambodia. Image: © Alan Williams

It’s an innovation that India’s spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi opposed in his time. He said the use of rubber tyres on bullock carts would make villagers more dependent on others and would be another means of exploitation.

Gandhi often travelled on bullock carts and spoke out against maltreatment of the bullocks, which he described as a sin. “I shall prefer going on foot rather than in the bullock cart. We should not strike animals which happen to be weak,” he said.

Over the past two decades, Indian engineers have been working on other changes to improve the bullock cart. While sticking largely to the original design, they have come up with a steel frame to replace the wooden one, and have designed an adjustable, padded yoke that is less likely to injure the ox. 

The challenge is to introduce these changes while ensuring the carts remain affordable for local people. The long-running success of bullock carts is due in part to the fact that people in rural areas have been able to build them themselves, using materials readily at hand.        

If these improvements do win the support of local people and are widely introduced, they could help give bullock carts a new lease of life, ensuring they remain a central part of life in rural India.

Header image: Bishnu Sarangi

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