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LEXICON

 

 

Water Buffalo

The Asian domestic buffalo is a large bovid, with the scientific designation Bubalus bubalis, that originates and is widely found in South, East and Southeast Asia. In Sanskrit, the Water Buffalo is called mahisha and in Thailand, it is known as kwai, a collective term used for the East Indian Water Buffalo (fig.), of which actually exist two varieties, i.e. one with strongly curled horns (fig.), which is predominant in the Indian subcontinent (fig.), the other with sickle-shaped horns and prevalent in the Southeast Asian region. Both of them occasionally also occur as albinos, with a pinkish hide (fig.). The term kwai is often used disparagingly to emphasize the animal's stupidity, as well as as a derogatory name for stupid people. An ancient legend says the buffalo was sent down to earth by the god Indra to teach people how to eat rice, ordering it to tell them to eat rice only once every three days. The buffalo descended to earth but forgot what it was ordered to say and got the message confused. It explained the people the had to eat three times a day, instead of once every three days. On its return to heaven Indra was enraged over this, saying there would not be enough food for every one. He thus punished the buffalo by sending it back to earth ordering it to go and help the people with their cultivation of rice by ploughing paddies and provide them with milk, which contains the most fat of all animal milk harvested in the region. In Hindu mythology, the buffalo is the mount of the Vedic god Yama and Nondi, mount of the god Ishana is said to be a buffalo, although other sources mention Nondi as being a bull. In the Ramakien, Torapi is a black buffalo and son of Torapa, an albino buffalo that would later be killed by his own son. In Hinduism, the water buffalo is the vahana of the Vedic god Yama and in Vietnam it is the mount of the Arahat Thac Thap La Han (fig.), i.e. the Lohan Subinda (fig.). Nondi, the mount of the god Ishana is said to be a buffalo although other sources mention Nondi as being a bull. The water buffalo also features as a protagonist in other legends and stories, such as with Sih Hoo Hah Tah and as Mahishasura. Water buffaloes only have a row of bottom teeth and do not posses a matching set of upper teeth (fig.). According to a Vietnamese folktale the tiger, who in the tale initially had no stripes, wondered why a strong animal like the buffalo, allowed humans to master it and work hard ploughing the fields for them, rather than roaming free in the jungle like himself. The buffalo explained him that this was because of the farmer's wit, though he was unable to describe what that exactly was, as he had never seen it. Thus, the tiger went to ask the farmer wishing to acquire it for himself. Afraid of the tiger and taken aback, the farmer cleverly told the tiger that he had left it in the marketplace, and would gladly get it and show it to  him, but was afraid that the tiger in his absence would kill his loyal buffalo. Hence, the farmer made a deal with the tiger, that he would allow to be tied to a stake, where he could not get to the buffalo.  Aspiring to get the farmer’s wit, the tiger agreed to the deal and was tied up and given a bed of hay to lay on. The farmer quickly fetched some kindling wood and returned only to start a fire under the bed of hay where the tiger lay. The tiger began to jump and twist, trying to free himself as the flames grew higher. The buffalo, meanwhile, was laughing so hard at the tiger’s misfortune that he swung his head down and hit a rock, on which he knocked out all of his top teeth. The tiger, acquiring his stripes from the lacerations of the hot flames, somehow was able to break free and ran back into the jungle, where he has remained ever since, wary of the farmer’s dangerous wit. In Myanmar, there is a Burmese folktale of how the buffalo lost his teeth to the horse. In some distant past, the buffalo apparently did have teeth in its top jaw, but the horse didn’t. Jealous and pretending to admire the buffalo’s pearly whites, the horse asked to borrow the buffalo’s top teeth in order to see how they would look on him. The naive buffalo agreed to lend the horse his teeth temporarily, but the horse suddenly ran off with the teeth, laughing. Water buffaloes are described as slow, headstrong and stubborn, yet hardworking and faithful. In China, the buffalo is a symbol for the coming of spring and is regarded as the protector of family, happiness and tradition, but also of faithful partnership until the grave. The Mekhong Delta, with its annual seasonal flooding, provides an ideal habitat for the water buffaloes, and Vietnam alone hosts an estimated 3 million buffaloes. In Chonburi, a buffalo race takes place annually on a day before the full moon of the 11th lunar month, concurrently with the end of the Buddhist Lent, usually in October or November. In this festival buffaloes are decorated with colourful cloth and flower garlands, before vying to win the race. The race originated by the idea to seek pleasure during an annual trade market that took place in Chonburi, Thailand's eastern trade centre. Coming with the merchants were the water buffaloes, used for pulling their carts. The race was initiated for fun and friendship before the merchants departed back to their hometowns. Although buffaloes are today increasingly being replaced by small tractors jokingly referred to as Japanese buffaloes (fig.), the animals too are still being used for ploughing paddies (fig.) and for transportation. They are also known as krabeua and carabao. See also waw kwai and Sapaan Kwai.