The last of the Bullock Carts
Are Colombo’s fuel-carting bovines on their last legs?
On a wet morning one Wednesday, we happened upon a wizened old man trundling
past the Independence Square on a rickety, blue, bullock cart; A. Chandana
claims he is the last of a species: A kerosene-vendor who uses a container
pulled by a single Ox to transport his fuel around the city.
There was a time, recalls Marini, a long-time resident of Jaya Road,
Bambalapitiya,that the ‘bullock-uncle’ - as we would call him, would come
faithfully to the house with his ‘karaththey’ (cart) every day. “We were school
children, so we didn’t know very much about what he did or why he was there, but
I do remember sneaking up to the bull, with my siblings, and trying to make
friends with him.”
Ann, a resident of Colpetty, remembers the same things: “Born and bred in the
heart of Colombo, I am ashamed to say we didn’t know very much about what these
men did, or why they were home,” she said. “But in a very
British-brought-up-on-Enid-Blyton-fashion, we tried to feed the bullock sugar
‘cubes’ (virtually impossible to find!), and entice it with fruit!”
“I don’t remember the last time I saw one, though,” she said. “Anyway, they are
from a time gone by”.
It is against this backdrop that Chandana makes his unhurried appearance.
Dressed in faded shorts, a checquered shirt and with a hat pulled down firmly on
his head, Chandana chews his betel slowly, taking time to think, before he
“About 55 years now,” he says in response to the question – ‘how many years in
the business?’ Chandana says he began playing his cart in 1964. “At that time, a
gallon of kerosene oil was 76 cents,” he said. “Now it is about Rs. 55 a litre.”
Born in Colpetty, A. Chandana is now a resident of Maradana, Colombo 10. He
begins his work early: “I get my fuel from the ‘shed’,” he said.
“No, I don’t get a discount – I get for the same amount that other people get it
“But, he added, “I sell it for about 5 rupees more: ‘Mey kakulata genath dena
dey, ney’ (Its what I bring, almost up to their feet, no) “But still, it’s less
expensive to buy from me than to but from the ‘kadey’ (local street shop). That
is why they wait for me,” he said, of his customers.
“When they hear my bell, they all congregate on the street,” he said, with just
the hint of a smile. “They depend on me. I go even to those tiny streets you can
barely take a vehicle down,” – referring to the temporary dwellings that mark
parts of Colombo.
So what exactly, does Chandana sell? “Kerosene oil,” he says. “But after gas
came in, business has been bad.”
Research indicates that cooking fuels become cleaner, more convenient, efficient
and costly as people move up the ‘energy ladder’ from animal dung, the lowest in
the ladder, towards crop-residues, wood, charcoal, kerosene, gas and
In Colombo - Gas and Electricity are increasingly dominant with fewer and fewer
residents using wood or kerosene.
This is the reason why, Chandana is the last of a kind in Colombo: “Outstation,
and in the outskirts of Colombo, there are people like me,” he said. “But I am
the last one in Colombo.”
Chandana says he has developed two ‘lines’. One of these routes takes him to
Kirulapone, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatte, while the other takes him to “Magazine
Road, Vaanathey and Obeysekarapura.”
Pictures by Chenaka Wickramarachchi
“I work for four to five hours a day at maximum,” he said, “and I manage to
scrape up about 1,200 - 1,500 rupees a day.”
“It’s with that money that we do everything we have to do.”
“I have a family,” he explained. “They are maintained with this money. My needs,
the bullocks needs, the household needs, the children’s needs - everything is
taken care of with this money.”
He admits the money is not enough. Especially with the advent of gas: “Before
gas came along, I would sell about 4 carts of fuel,” he said. “Each cart load
contains about 570 litres. Now, I am lucky if sell about 250-300 litres a day.”
He says it is unlikely he will do any other work. “Meka thama puruddata gihin
thiyenney,” he says - “This is the job I am accustomed to. I can’t do anything
other than this. I am now 64 years old. I have done this job from the time I was
“There were problems before,” he said, lapsing into memory. “We were not allowed
on the streets till after 9 am – that affected business. But now, aparadey
kiyanna beha, there are no problems with the ralahamis (policemen). There was a
time I was mugged also - twice!”
“They threw chilli powder in my face and made off with 300 rupees, one time, I
remember - 300 rupees was a lot of money in those days.”
“Now I don’t have that kind of problem anymore. Now the problems are the
traffic, the heat, the rain – those things, but even that is not really a
problem,” he said translucently.
“I wish I had another bullock or two, though,” he added, in sudden afterthought.
“I could give this fellow a break then, and ride them alternately.” But a bull
costs between 125,000 - 150,000 rupees, Chandana said, not something he can
afford at the moment.
“I have another cart that I give for weddings. I earn something from that work.
It’s a nice cart. But I use this same animal - if something happens to him,
well, then I don’t know,” he said, shrugging.
The bullock, Chandana says, is housed at a ‘madama’nearby. “I give it ‘poonakku’
in the morning. Then in the afternoon, after our rounds, I cut him a big bundle
of grass and leave it there for him. He eats that until night.”
“Every so often someone will offer to buy my bullock,” Chandana said. “Sometimes
people do that to set the bullock free. I use the money they give me to buy
another bullock. I have changed bullocks like this, over 500 times in my life.
But I never sell them to be slaughtered. We don’t even eat beef,” he said.
He says he is well received, wherever he goes: “People know me. On the streets
they wave and say “Hello, Chandrey-Uncle!” or ‘Chandre’. Sometimes will even
give me a Rs. 50 or Rs.100 ‘santhosam’ Some will make me a cup of tea, some will
even give me food,” he said of the goodwill he generates.
“ I want to continue in this business,” he said. “I am used to this. I work 365
days a year. But I don’t know what will happen in the future.”
“Anyway, this trade will end with me,” he says with final, quiet conviction.
“It’s true, I have a son, but the children have studied - so they won’t end up
the way I did.”
“This ends with me.”