Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holy Cow!

Q :How can you spot a newbie in India?
A: They are taking photographs of street cows!

We've all been there, done that and then deleted all the pics. However I had to write an article for the Rangoli (OWC magazine) about the beast which in Bangalore is more effective than any speed bump. So it was time to probe a little deeper!

These cows are not, as one might first imagine, wandering nomads. They are, in fact, owned and are the major bread winner for some families. Apparently, cows do have a pretty good homing instinct but in any case do not wander far. Their owners are thus close by and are very quick to appear if any man, other beast or vehicle is doing their cow harm. During the day the cows will roam free, scavenging for food and taking naps as and when – we all know that drill! As evening falls, milking time, the cow will return home – to be relieved of its milk, and also, if it’s lucky, more food. These cows usually live in a shed next to their owner’s house. There are places in Bangalore akin to little urban cow farms/dairies; essentially where a few sheds are built round a bit of scrubland, deserted by day but a mass of milk machines by night.

Historically, leaving your cow free to roam and forage was both an efficient and cheap way to feed it. There  being plenty of grass to be found. In today's world it costs 250 rupees a day to provide a cow with the food and nutrients it needs, outside the pocket of most cow keepers. However, unfortunately, a major health hazard lurks indistinguishable by said beast from the waste food it forages for in the road side trash – plastic!!  A case was reported in Mumbai where 30kg of plastic was removed from a cow’s belly during a surgery lasting five hours. Apparently her belly was so distended and her digestive system so screwed up, food was coming out of her nose.  It was reported that a full recovery was in fact made.

The cow has a very important role in Hinduism, which seems to date back to Krishna – the naughty, cheeky little blue boy playing his flute, who grew up as a cow herder, aside from being a supreme being and a major contributor to the Bhagvard Gita.  The cow, itself, is not actually worshipped in any way and only sacred in that it is taboo to harm it. In the Bhagvard Gita, Krishna said that one of the three activities of the rural worker should be ‘cow protection”. The cow provides five important basic elements – milk, obviously for nourishment especially for children, butter-ghee, curds, and also cow dung (for fuel/energy) and cow urine (yes – you did read that correctly!) But drinking cow pee?….yes! In 2009 cow urine was packaged, launched and marketed (if you google you can also find cow urine champagne) This was supposed to be the real thing – the healthy alternative to pepsi and coke!! “Gau jal” – cow water - is actually sold in auyeredic health shops for its medicinal properties, and also can be used for cleaning - it apparently has antiseptic powers.

In Karnataka in 2010, the state government passed a prevention of cow slaughter bill, amidst much opposition from non-Hindus (presumably beef eating and leather wearing) and also Hindu cow owners. It is now illegal to kill livestock under the age of 12 but, sadly for the Bangalore cow population, these rules are mostly ignored and go unheeded. Most cow owners are not wealthy and thus old, past their milking date cows and of course any bull babies are a financial burden and usually sold off to butchers for beef eating non-Hindus. The financial aspect taking priority over the religious angle! The slaughter is carried out in extremely unpleasant and painful ways. There are charities in Bangalore which have been set up to try to protect both cow and oxen, which manages to strike a balance between protecting the cows and being sympathetic to the financial constraints of the owners. For example, when a cow comes into heat it will be artificially inseminated and if pregnancy does not ensue, obviously its milk yield falls, it loses it's financial credibility and, odds on, its end is nigh. The charity, financed purely by donations, visits the villages and gives these cows hormonal shots to try and increase the chance both of pregnancy and the pregnancy holding, and hence both income for the owner and life for the cow. The Indian breeds of cow, while strongly built to walk long distances, do not have a particularly high milk yield, so a lot of hybrid cows are bred which produce more milk but are not suited to either the Indian extremes of temperature or the inherent walking lifestyle. This gives rise to more bovine medical conditions which the charities try to address.

Bangalore bovines do not have terribly happy, healthy or hopeful lives but come one day in January, after Pongal (the Kannada harvest) and the supposed anniversary of when Krishna was promoted from calf minder to cow herder, it is their day. They are dressed and decorated, Pooja done on their behalf and hopefully another year of mindlessly meandering the streets of Bangalore producing magnitudes of marvelous milk lies ahead.

So next time you are delayed in traffic by a ungainly, malnourished, but gentle-looking beast lying unconcernedly mid-street taking a nap, you can take a mooooooment (I resisted all bad cow puns until this last paragraph) to reflect on its history, its present and it's pretty gloomy future! 

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