Do you want to be a cowboy in Delhi?

Photo: Ville Miettinen

One thing about India that always perplexed me is that cows are seemingly allowed to roam free on city streets and in garbage strewn alley-ways. Why is this? Is this related to cow worship? Is it against the law to eat beef? Isn’t the practice of letting cows roam around dangerous to people driving vehicles? Who takes care of these animals? Who owns them? Who nurses them to health when they’re sick?

My curiosity forced me to research the myths, facts, and controversy about this quizzical practice.

I guess it really all started back in the earliest days of the Hindu religious texts called the Vedas from the second millennium BC. There is no prohibition of the slaughter of cattle in these ancient texts, instead, the slaughter was ordained as part of a sacrificial rite. The early Hindus didn’t avoid the meat of cows; they apparently only ate it in ceremonial feasts that were overseen by Brahman priests.

As the Hindu religion changed over time as a result of socio-economic factors, the practice of cow worship increased. The Vedas from the first millennium now contain contradictory passages. Some passages speak of the ritual slaughter as did those before, while others talk of the strict taboo against beef consumption.

By 200 A.D. the transformation of restricted consumption to cow worship had taken hold. The Brahman priests forbade people to abuse or feed on it. It is called Aghanya – that which may not be slaughtered. The practice of ritual slaughter was removed from religious feasts, and meat eating in general was restricted to nobility.

Today all Hindus are forbidden to eat beef, most people citing the Ahimsa, the Hindu belief in the unity of all life as the spiritual reason for the taboo. It may also be because of the influence of vegetarian practices of another religion called Jainism.

This quick answer seems a little too much of an easy answer though. Other explanations are that maybe the Hindus wanted to further differentiate themselves from the Muslim beef-eaters invading from the north, and that proclaiming that their cows were sacred animals was a way to solidify their ethnic-religious unity. Other reasons for the change of status of the cow might be for purely practical reasons that are related to the preservation of the agrarian society.

It used to be a practice, that a cow would be slaughtered to feed an important guest that was visiting or for the religious ceremony. It would be an insult to the guest or Brahman priest to not slaughter a cow, but to butcher a chicken or goat. The practice of butchering a cow could in reality take the ability to sustain the family away and wipe them out, yet they were forced to perform the slaughter out of social norms. The cow provides many functions to the agrarian Indian family. The oxen till the fields, the milk from the cow is used to feed the family, the butter from the cow is burned for light, and the dung is used for cooking…. by instituting a taboo against the eating of beef, the country as a whole benefits. It seems natural that if there truly is a benefit to people, the priests would support it and evolve their practices in support of this as well. It appears that this may have actually occurred.

Photo: Eli

A common theme throughout Hinduism is the reverence for all things. You can see this common theme of respect for the cow by Hindus rather than true worship as you might worship a God. Cows in the Hindu religion are called Go-Mata (Mother Cow), the one who should be worshipped because of the various graces she bestows on humanity. The “worship” of the cow is not at the same level as Christians worship god. This is evident in the displays that tourists sometimes see when observing cows nosing into a shopkeepers stall.

Westerners expect shopkeepers to respond to these situations with deference due a sacred animal; instead, their response is a string of curses and the crack of a long bamboo pole across the beast’s back or a poke at its genitals.

Mahatma Gandhi recognized this and commented on how sacred cows were being treated.

“How we bleed her to take the last drop of milk from her. How we starve her to emaciation, how we ill-treat the calves, how we deprive them of their portion of milk, how cruelly we treat the oxen, how we beat them, how we overload them.

Sacred animals?

There is a day set aside once a year for the Go-puja or the day for worshipping the cow. This is an occasion that people use to dress them up in costume and treat them with the respect that they are due.

Photo: Dey Alexander

So my next question is this. If so much respect should be accorded to a cow, why are they freely wandering around? In the rural areas, if an extended drought has occurred and the cow stops lactating or becomes barren, which generally happens, the condition may be permanent. A cow in this condition is no longer the asset that it once was and with the taboo in existence, what do you do with a cow like this? It turns out that the local government keeps a public grazing field for just this circumstance. Cowboys are employed by the local governance to care for them (after a fashion) until old age and natural death. If the cow does happen to start lactating again, the farmer has an option to reclaim “his” cow for a small fee, and he’s back on track.

If you live in a city, families don’t have much land and complain that they cannot sustain their cows with their barren land so the cows are allowed to roam the streets, fending for themselves and feeding on garbage and whatever vegetation they can find.

Photo: Leon Morenas Photo: Jessica Goldstein/NPR

Unfortunately, this practice of letting cows wander freely has resulted in many cows dying of starvation, In 2000, cows in Lucknow, India were mysteriously dying of some kind of a wasting disease. There was no explanation for the deaths of what were once healthy cows. After being released as usual, into the city’s streets to graze on garbage they became skinnier and weaker, and then died of what appeared to be starvation.

Plastic bags were found to be the culprit. Cows will find edible garbage that was discarded in a plastic bag, and they will eat the whole thing, bag and all. The local veterinarian who performed the autopsies found that there were 50 to 60 plastic bags in the cow’s stomachs that were preventing the food from being digested.

Laws were passed to prevent the thin plastic garbage bags from being used, but the laws were ignored and the cows continue to die. Evidently respect and worship only goes so far.

Some interesting facts:

There are currently over 40,000 cows roaming freely in New Delhi.

To deal with them, New Delhi employs over 100 cowboys.

The National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (NTPRC) reports that the number of road accidents in India is three times higher than that prevailing in developed countries. The number of accidents for 1000 vehicles in India is as high as 35 while the figure ranges from 4 to 10 in developed countries.

I wonder if it’s because of all the cows wandering around on the roads. What do you think?

Works cited:

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6 Responses to Do you want to be a cowboy in Delhi?

  1. This was a great explanation of India’s history with cows. The analysis of the cow as an asset with each attribute associated with a task/value was very interesting as well. I never knew butter was burned to create light!

    I am also intrigued by the fact that Delhi has so many urban cowboys responsible for the mass quantity of urban cows. The NYT article conjures up images of Spanish bullfighters and Texas rodeo clowns – though the description of the angry Hindus criticizing their cow-herding behavior and the “Milk Mafia” perhaps leaves me more frightful!

    I must say that I was somewhat surprised that this post did not discuss the topic of leather. In my India research, I have read about camel-hide leather products from India as well as buffalo-hide products, but (foolishly) assumed that Indian leather did not come from cows. I recently learned that India is one of the world’s biggest leather producers, a fact that seems to contradict the country’s “holy cow” mantra. PETA’s website discusses India’s horrific leather industry and mentions that cows are sometimes “skinned and dismembered while still conscious.”

    I can’t help but be confused by the paradox that exists in this country – how can India ban the slaughter of cows throughout most of the country, yet also be criticized for their slaughter practices?

  2. Jeff says:

    I was also intrigued by the use of leather. I wasn’t sure if wearing leather was a problem for us when visiting India, but when we talked of appropriate dress, it wasn’t mentioned. That’s when I started looking into the subject of cows. What I found was that the slaughter of old cows for leather is done by the “un-touchables” those of low caste. Interestingly enough, it’s also known that they eat the beef as well… I guess it’s like the don’t ask – don’t tell policy in the US military.

  3. I would of never thought that there were 40000 cows in just New Dehli! I am intrigued to know how many of them are still lactating, or if most of them are discarded because of their age and lack of milk. If there are still some cows that can produce milk, I wonder how often random people will get under one for a quick swig of fresh creamy milk. I guess it would be like a portable water fountain, minus the water.

    Just thought I would also add another product that comes from a cow, Cow Cola. This cola comes from cow URINE and is supposedly healthy, but still has some issues since it goes bad quickly in the summer months. Here’s the site:

  4. Leon Morenas says:

    Its normally the bulls that are left to roam the streets. Even if you see cows on the roads, they are not left on the streets at night.

  5. Austen Diliberto says:

    This is an interesting topic. I have been to other third world countries like Egypt and Morocco and also noticed cows in strange places. I also wouldn’t expect a sacred animal to be left to fend for itself like cows are in India. This post cleared up a few questions I had about cows in India. Before I thought that perhaps they were some kind of god, but they are simply regarded as sacred. It’s funny that the historical texts about cows and beef eating contradict themselves. I do like the theory that Hindus avoided beef to differentiate themselves from muslims to the north.
    I personally love eating beef, but I try to keep it to a minimum. I will miss a nice beef meal while we are in India!

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