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Radhika Subramaniam: In Search of the Indian Cow


The early hours of the morning, the early years of my life. Excited by the start of the holidays and unsettled by an unfamiliar bed, I creep down the stairs. My grandmother is at the front door. My grandfather’s temper is safely out of sight. I hear the milk splashing in the pail and in the dawn light, I can see the cow. The sounds of the city – yes, it is a city – are still hushed. She stands at the door with her calf beside her. I don’t understand, why, as yet, and in fact, it is many years before I make the connection between our splashing milk and the calf. It presented itself then as it does now, as a complete image, whole and indivisible. Later, when my grandmother makes me my small cup of coffee, I don’t tell her that I dislike the way the milk tastes in it.

In our own big city apartment, milk arrived in clanking milk pails, tethered to either side of the milkman’s bicycle, pedalled by his sinewy legs many miles from the dairy colony. It is buffalo milk, I’m told, and what you’re used to, which is why the milk at your grandmother’s tastes different. In fact, buffalo is the source of most milk in the sub-continent. The milkman has gone down in family lore for his experimental approach to naming on the monthly bill: He has an idiosyncratic way of splitting my father’s full name, yoking it to a new symmetry, so that it emerges steady and balanced as a pair of oxen. It was generally believed too that he watered down the milk, which may additionally explain the taste to which my palate has grown accustomed. But there it came, just in time at that dark hour, for the resultant coffee or tea to dispel the fog of night before the school bus.

By the time I actually drank a full glass of milk, I was an adult in the United States. Years of lassi, chhaas, dahi, moru, paneer, payasam, kheer, rasgulla, kulfi, shrikhand, ghee and all sorts of other yogurts, cheeses, butter and sweets, had not prepared me for that glass of milk as it first came: cold, white, long and gleaming from the fridge and far enough from everything to taste, with remarkable disinterest, of nothing at all.


In 2002, the eminent Indian historian D.N. Jha found himself at the centre of a storm provoked by his book The Myth of the Holy Cow. It is a straightforward account. Using copious Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptural and other citations, he argues against the assumption of the historical sanctity of the cow by demonstrating a long history of eating beef in India.

The book doesn’t really make a case against the significance of the cow as a central presence in a complex array of social and cultural practices. In fact, it is replete with references to the cow’s ritual importance through sacrifice and its appearance in imagery. What he underscores rather is that the perceived Hindu taboo against eating beef is of recent vintage. This wasn’t news by any means. Indian historians had acknowledged it for decades. In the 1960s, American anthropologist Marvin Harris proffered a somewhat attenuated ecological and materialist explanation. To a small-scale agricultural economy, cattle were far more useful alive than dead – they pulled carts and ploughs, their dung was used as fuel and they provided milk. Nevertheless, Jha’s book provoked a furore. A resurgent Hindu nationalism of several decades standing had re-appropriated the symbolic fervour of the cow. Well-organized and well-stoked, it has tended to fuel aggressive and militant responses to perceived slights. Concerned about retaliation, the first publisher of the book actually backed away from his commitment. Another bravely took his place but Hindu right groups managed to get a court order to limit circulation. Jha also received death threats. It was then published abroad by Verso.

By the late 19th century, it was clear that if the cow had ever simply been a cow, it was now going to be a great deal more. Carrying a definite political charge, the animal began to be closely associated with a newly reinforced Hindu identity. Hindu reformer Swami Dayananda Saraswati and the organization he founded, the Arya Samaj, initiated the earliest cow protection movements, as they were called. A Gaurakshini Sabha (or Cow Protection Society) was established in Punjab in 1882, one of many more to follow. This impetus had far less to do with religious reform than with religious nationalism. Cow Protection movements demanded that the colonial government ban cow slaughter. By and large, the colonial government established its policies in these matters on “customary law”. That meant it was constructed on the basis of practices and beliefs that were considered to be long-standing or “customary” to various castes and religious communities. Since the cow was not uniformly regarded as sacred – that is, not to Muslims, for instance – the courts refused to accede to the cow-protection demands.

Opposition deepened between Hindu groups and the British, but equally among Hindus and Muslims. Now that the colonial government had backed Muslim custom in refusing to ban slaughter, they were obliged to ensure that it could happen safely. Police protection had to be provided to prevent any disruption during such festivals as Bakr Id or other occasions of cow slaughter. So, the beef-eating British seemed to be supporting other beef eaters. Through this, Muslims became curiously aligned with the colonial power, underscoring their characterization as foreigners.

The organization of cow protection grew through rallies, campaigns and meetings, leading to many outbreaks of violence. In 1893, there was large-scale rioting across the country, beginning with a Hindu-Muslim dispute spurred by confusions in the implementation of colonial policy. Well into the next century, the cow, as Gau mata (Mother cow), remained one of the most potent symbols of a Hindu nationalism that believed its culture and traditions had been suppressed and sullied by Muslim rule.

Gandhi too was a staunch advocate of gau seva, service to the cow, folding it into his complex political philosophy of personal sacrifice and civil resistance. He described the cow as a “poem of pity”. Compassion toward the animal was, for him, part of a larger ethos of attitudes toward the helpless and weak. The symbolic power of the cow notwithstanding, the actual conditions under which cattle lived were sorry enough to benefit from sustained attention. According to Gandhi, legislation wasn’t going to do it. True care and protection would only come from education and transformation from within.

The supposed sanctity of the cow has never been an assurance of good treatment. In fact, perhaps precisely because cows are not being fattened for slaughter, they are frequently ill-fed and poorly kept, despite the existence of infrastructures of care. Particularly in parts of Northern and Western India, there are gaushalas, shelters for aged, infirm, sick and unwanted cattle. In Gandhi’s own Gujarat, such gaushalas or the associated institutions of pinjrapoles, were often strongly influenced by Jain beliefs in ahimsa or non-violence. A traditional pinjrapole could house a large array of animals apart from cattle – sheep, goats, dogs, donkeys, birds, and even, on occasion, in scrupulous attention to the minuscule, a jivat khan or room for insects. However, for all that they recognised that age and infirmity affect all who labour, these were often poorly managed; Gandhi rightfully inveighed against their conditions. More obscurely though, he also suggested that the spirit of compassion and ahimsa manifested in the care toward the cow would influence Muslims “of their own accord” to recognise the necessity, perhaps out of respect for Hindus, not to slaughter cows.

Yet, beef neither was nor is only part of a Hindu-Muslim divide. Eating beef also characterized one’s position within the Hindu caste fold. The lowest castes and those considered outside the hierarchy, such as Dalits, were marked because they ate beef or because their hereditary professions, such as tanning, dealt with cowhide. In fact, the second edition of Jha’s book, published in India in 2009, which I consulted, includes as an appendix an essay from 1948 by the renowned Dalit leader, jurist and reformer, B.R. Ambedkar titled Untouchability, The Dead Cow and the Brahmin. In it, he makes the case that eating beef is actually at the root of the construction of untouchability. According to him, early Brahminical repudiation of beef and cow sacrifice was really a response to the growing ascendance of Buddhism. Gradually, over time, both Brahmin and non-Brahmin groups adopted the prohibition against killing cows and consequent dietary restrictions as a sign of identity. However, the implications of this prohibition were not uniform. On those ritually and economically disadvantaged groups who might never have owned any animals to slaughter, its impact was substantially different. Their access to the flesh of the cow had always come through dead animals. For the Mahar community of Maharashtra, for instance, the carcass of the cow was theirs by right. Caste villagers were even required to surrender their dead animals to them. As such communities did not contravene the sanction against killing, beef continued as a necessary part of sustenance.

In 2012, a beef-eating festival was organized by Dalit students at Osmania University in Hyderabad, partly in a protest against its exclusion from the university hostel menu. Members of the Hindu right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students Council) attacked the festival, injuring several students. Google it. Scroll down and you will see the comments erupt in a fairly typical clamour of disagreement: What if we organized a pork festival instead? An insult and an offense to our sensibilities! Here is textual evidence of the sanctity of the cow! A legitimate assertion of suppressed identity! Everyone should be entitled to eat what he or she pleases! Couldn’t we all just be vegetarian? Beef remains a powerful flashpoint, harnessing the body of the Indian cow inextricably to politics.


Indian cattle are zebu, bos indicus, with long lashes, elegant sloping shoulders, a curved hump, long dewlap, and horns like scimitars. These are tough, hardened animals, born out of a land of heat, dust and drought. The names of the breeds reflect their ties to the land – Tharparkar, cattle which can cross the arid Thar – or are tied, as we are, to places of origin: Bengali, Gir, Hallikar, Hariana, Kankrej, Kenkatha, Kherigarh, Mewati, Nagori, Ongole, Sahiwal, Rath, Red Sindhi. There is no room for cattle outside the sphere of the human, but within our world, they create much of its experience: of imagination, of indignation, continually expressive, frequently excessive. When they don’t fuel imaginations, they light the cooking fire in villages all over the sub-continent. Cowdung, collected, dried and flattened into cakes is as good or better than any tinder. For several decades now, cow manure or gobar has been used to develop small-scale bio-gas facilities. Manure mixed with water goes through a process of anaerobic digestion to produce gobar gas. With easy access to the raw materials, this is an inexpensive and environmentally sound source of energy.

Among the many other loads Indian cattle bear is that of human passion. They are Gaumata, Mother Cow, the bull Nandi, Kamadhenu, the cow of plenty, Surabhi, Lakshmi, Gomati. Through them, as a cultural medium, people enact forms of identity and belonging, and simultaneously, oppression, discrimination and violence. Cattle’s own thoughts about these matters are neither a matter of record or speculation. In fact, language, as it is thrust into their mouths, emerges from deep within our own early babble. Maa, lows the Indian cow, an open and round sound unlike the sonorous, but contrasting Western moo. Its bell-like resonance is linked to a child’s first sounds, ma, mother.

Such primal intimacy goes hand in glove with contradictions. When young dancers stamp out their rhythms ta theya ta theya, on hardened and calloused feet, their teacher calls out syllables, rapping them out by hand on the tabla. The tabla, and its fellow instruments of percussion such as the pakhawaj, mridangam, maddalam and chenda accompany voice and feet in music and performance. Measures ring out dha dha tirakita dha dha tin na on drums made of buffalo, cow or goatskin stretched over resonating chambers of gourd or wood. The skilled artisans that make these instruments are of lower castes since they must work with animal hide.

Classical Indian dance forms, such as Kathak, Bharata Natyam and Odissi, have had their own complex symbolic histories. Over the last century, they have been uncoupled from their court, courtesan and temple dance contexts, and brought onto the stage. In the spirit of the many social and religious reforms of the late 19th and early 20th century, dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale gave what is now called Bharata Natyam enough of a make-over to make it appropriate for more chaste audiences. She established a dance and music academy where innovations in this performance were further institutionalized. Learning music or dance became a common part of the cultural education of many middle-class, upper-caste children.

While dancing feet might have changed caste takita takadhimi, nothing much has changed for the animals called into service takita takajonu to accompany them. The mridangam that accompanies the dancer or the singer in a Southern Indian Carnatic concert is typically made of jackfruit wood with buffalo, goat and cowhide stretched over the sides, the various skins layered to enhance the sound. While dancers, singers and even mridangists might be of upper caste, often Brahmin, some of the best-known mridangam makers are Dalit Christians. Musicians too, like many of us, often wish to believe that an animal dropped helpfully dead to become a drum or a shoe, or that this transformation is the silver lining in an untimely end. The plain truth, however, is that a master craftsman’s dexterity is inextricably linked to a deep familiarity with his material. He can gauge when a cow has ma-ed enough calves (one or two, apparently) to grant the drum an especial percussive thrill. Gau ma ta kita ta ka dhi mi.

In 2009, a junior Indian minister with a quick twitter-finger wrote: absolutely, he too would travel “cattle class” in solidarity with all “our holy cows”. His flip tweet was responding to a query during a government austerity drive that used the same phrase “cattle class”. Tumult ensued, the sort that accompanies such political news of the day. There were accusations that he was elitist and out of touch with the vast majority of the country’s travellers. It also seemed that he might have been thumbing his nose ever so casually at the sacred cows who were his party leaders. In apology, he tweeted back: He wasn’t disparaging economy-class travellers, but really commenting on the way in which airlines herd passengers – presumably into cramped conditions familiar to cattle, and to some dead fish. Whatever their proximity to cattle, people would rather not be treated like them. The mridangam makers in Chennai, interviewed in Outlook magazine in 2003, state categorically, “We deserve to be treated better than cows.”

In the late afternoon, beyond the studio door where the dancers’ slippers, leather and rubber alike, are piled, a cow or two may be found ambling by the side of the road or rummaging through the neighbourhood rubbish. These are the cows that capture the attention of Western tourists, who find in their presence on city streets the genuine article of exotic inscrutability. These cows share the city with a host of other urban dwellers – cats, rats, mice, mynahs, parrots, eagles, pigeons, dogs, crows, mosquitoes, cockroaches, moths, butterflies, geckos, squirrels, sparrows, monkeys, buffaloes. They haven’t yet been evacuated, as they have elsewhere, to the imagination of green pastures. Animals such as these live everywhere in close proximity to us: sometimes cossetted, sometimes attacked, and so often simply unseen.


The story begins: Six blind men who have not known elephants are asked to describe one that is in front of them. There are many versions of the fable, but they all go pretty much like this. The men approach the animal. Each one runs his hands over what’s in front of him – flapping ears, curving tusks, firm trunk, swishing tail, a large expanse of tough skin, tree-trunk legs – and offers his description: It’s like a great winnowing fan! A ploughshare! No, a snake! A brush! Why, a veritable granary! No, a pillar! Unable to agree, they come to blows. The moral of the story is that truth manifests in many ways. Or perhaps it is that each of us makes our own truth. Or the moral could be that quarrels usually stem from ignorance. Or that it is not possible for any of us to comprehend the entirety of something. Or maybe, once again, that the whole is just greater than the sum of its parts.

There is also a joke told from the elephant’s point of view. Six blind elephants, wondering what men are like, decide to find out. Approaching a man, one of them steps forward. He’s flat, she says. The others reach their trunks out. Yes indeed, they agree. Its message, if one should ever be extracted from a joke, appears to be simple: It is possible to flatten the fullest life into two dimensions.

So where does this leave us in the search for the cow? Milk, meat, draught animal, drum, dung, syllable, symbol. Can we stitch this together to make the animal? What can such a reconstruction really tell us of the lived lives of cows? Can we know what that might be? How do we want to find out? Now, even our questions are obscured by hooves kicking up golden dust at dusk. Godhuli vela, they call it, the hour of cow dust, that magical time when cows returning from a day’s grazing kick the earth upward to catch the sun. The clink and nuzzle of brass bells, measured rhythm of hooves, the undulation of gleaming horns, the deep rumble of breath, large bodies against each other, warm, live, moving.


Anand, S. (2008) Thyagaraja’s Cow, Outlook, September 8.

Jha, D.N. (2009) The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Delhi: Navayana Publishing (first edition published by Matrix Books, New Delhi, 2001)

Radhika Subramaniam is Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design/The New School, New York. As a curator, editor and writer, her interdisciplinary practice deploys such platforms as exhibitions, texts and public art interventions as conscious forms of knowledge-making. She is interested in the poetics and politics of crises and surprises, particularly cities and crowds, cultures of catastrophe and human-animal relationships.