Why are Cows Sacred in India?

It was midway through a particularly dizzy auto-rickshaw ride from dinner to our hotel in Bikaner that my mother flat out lost it.

We were careening wildly along the road, a patchwork of curled dust spirals and potholes, the dirt road and pavement mixed together as though someone forgot to specify which kind of street they preferred. While dinner was gratifying — a thick masala paneer and mutton curry, shared between my mum and I with a side of the always-delicious jeera (cumin) rice — we risked losing it alongside our bumpy ride. I put my hand over my mouth and burped unceremoniously, the paneer slowly creeping up my throat.

cows sacred in india
One of many auto-rickshaws from the trip

The auto-rickshaw swerved hard, curving around two huge cows and their calves that were lounging in the middle of the road. Nonplussed, one of the cows swatted its tail absentmindedly as we passed, her gaze already elsewhere by the time our ride righted itself once more. My mother began to giggle quietly. I hadn’t heard this giggle of hers for years, since my brother and I were kids. I remember the sound, prefaced by a quiet smirk that we knew meant things would unravel soon. First the giggle, then under-the-breath chuckling and then a full blown attack of laughter, contagious to all of us around her.

I glanced over at her, concerned that she was actually upset. But no, her head was thrown back and tears were streaming down her face as she howled with mirth. My gaze moved to our third passenger, Amy, whose eyes had widened in alarm.

She’s fine,” I assured her with a smile. “She’s just losing her shit.”

And my mum, finally able to control herself enough to speak, turned to us with a face full of tears.

The cows. They tell you about the cows. You see documentaries about cows. They say ‘oh the cows are everywhere.’ And then you get here, and nothing prepares you for it. It’s REALLY FULL OF COWS!

And with that she started laughing again, this time with both of us joining in.

Do you think if we lived here for awhile, we’d get used to the cows?” I asked Amy.

Looking outside at the side of the street, a tapestry of sitting and standing cows, of goats and garbage and bright saris, she rightfully responded without missing a beat.

Not a chance.”

I suspect she’s right. I think of my months in Saigon and my glee with every last xe om ride I took, each yielding a new adventure and many laughs. I can’t see how the manic wonder would ever cease. There are always new cows to see.

What are they doing?

The man was leaning into his store’s narrow doorway, arms crossed, staring at us suspiciously. Manu, our guide, jerked his head up in response to the question and smiled.

They’re taking pictures,” he said, gesturing at us. “They take a lot of pictures.

Narrowing his eyes at us, the man turned to Manu in confusion.

I don’t understand — don’t they have cows in their country?

My mum and I were on a daytime wander through Bikaner with Amy, the rest of the group back at the hotel. Transfixed by the narrow roads lined with red sandstone buildings and juxtaposition of cows and people, we were weaving our way through alleyways and doorways. While on our way to the main market, we found a patch of buildings lit up by the afternoon sun, the walls glowing warmly. And, of course, a cow sitting in the middle of the scene.

Specifically, this cow:

cows in india: Bikaner
Centre stage in Bikaner.

Manu dutifully translated the man’s question, and I called back with a smile, hopping over to a different alleyway “yes but they don’t hang out in the middle of the road!

In response to Manu’s proffered answer the man merely shook his head and muttered, “next thing you know they will be taking pictures of the dogs too.”

I didn’t tell him that we had done just that, moments before.

Bikaner dog smiling at us.

Why are Cows Sacred in India?

For those who have been to India, the prevalence of cows – and not just your every day cow, but a different type, an indifferent, generally blasé, “I’m just doing whatever I want, where I want” cow — is nothing new. For those like my mum, myself and Amy it was a non-stop bovine adventure.

As my mum noted during her laugh attack, the cows are everywhere. You know this intellectually going into a trip to India. It’s everywhere in the literature about the country. From a PBS piece about cows in India:

Few people, however, revere the cow like the world’s 900 million adherents of Hinduism. Since the faith first evolved near Asia’s Indus River more than 3,000 years ago, respect for animal life has been a central theme in Hindu life. While many scholars say early Hindus ate beef, most ultimately came to see the cow as a sacred animal to be esteemed, not eaten. “If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection,” Mahatma Gandhi, India’s legendary nonviolent leader, once wrote.

Although Hindus follow no single set of rules, reverence for cows can be found throughout the religion’s major texts. Some trace the cow’s sacred status back to Lord Krishna, one of the faith’s most important figures. He is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago as a cowherd, and is often described as bala-gopala, “the child who protects the cows.” Another of Krishna’s holy names, Govinda, means “one who brings satisfaction to the cows.” Other scriptures identify the cow as the “mother” of all civilization, its milk nurturing the population.

Nothing prepares you for what it is like to see so many of them draped around cars, standing on doorways, obstinately hanging out in the middle of a freeway with no regard to moving. Ever.

I realize, too, that cows are causing problems for traffic; I had several Indian people explain that understandably they were the cause of many accidents. However, wandering around India truly felt like a cow photoshop extravaganza, where scenes of temples and ornate marble and curved stairways with wrought iron railings were drizzled with cows ex post facto. I realize that sounds ridiculous, but every time I thought we had reached Peak Cow Saturation, a few more cows entered the scene.

Photos of Cows in Rajasthan, India

cows in india: Bikaner
“What are you looking at, lady?”
cows in india: Bikaner
“Oh you know, we’re just hanging out in the shade until the afternoon gets a little cooler.”
Cow India
“I know it’s an offering, but I’m hungry and this cement is delicious.”
Cow India
Jaipur wasn’t the cleanest, meaning that the cows ate the garbage too.
boar india
OMG IT’S A BOAR! Seriously, Manu told us they had these hair little boars and then we saw one and then I made everyone stop for my breathless boar photoshoot. BOARS! So cute.
Cow India
My view out of the bus window as the festival of Dussehra approached. Henna’d cows.
Cow India
This guy would NOT move. Store owner tried swatting him, moving the food, trying to move the cow. Nothing. He was adamant.
Cow India
Jojoawar bovine.
Cow India
Bus? Check. People? Check. Jeep? Check. Cows? MANY!
Cow India
Getting out of the way for an angry bovine? CHECK!
Cow India
“Hey, I have an idea: let’s go to the middle of that busy road and make fun of all the people stuck in traffic!”
Cow India
Police officer? Check. Passerbys watching someone get a ticket? Check. Cows? CHECK!
Cow India
My favourite cow of all. Beautiful.
Cow India
“Just going for a stroll. See ya!”
Cow India
“WHAT? We’re talking.”
Cow India
And, ending on a calf note: what a cutie.

Thus ends my cow extravaganza. A short sample from the many cow photos in my repertoire from just a few short weeks in India.

I’m currently in cold and snowy Montreal, waiting for my brother and his girlfriend to arrive this afternoon on their flight from the UK. We trekked back for the holidays to spend them with my dad, but unfortunately an ice storm has left him without power, and left the roads impassable to get to him. We are hoping that things will be cleared tomorrow — we are a mere 3 hours away, but unable to reach him and my stepmum. Crossing my fingers that power will be restored and the trees littering the road cleared.

Happy holidays, whatever you are celebrating. As always, thank you for reading and here’s to a wonderful 2014 for everyone, full of family, friends and many delicious meals.


p.s. several people have asked about the photos. Yes. they are taken with a camera, no iPhone. No, I don’t edit in Lightroom or Photoshop, but I do crop  and straighten using the free Picasa tool. Camera is an Olympus E-P3 camera, with an excellent 20mm “pancake” Panasonic f/1.7 lens.

A reminder that I was sent to India to document my journey as part of G Adventures’ Wanderers in Residence Programme. Flights and tour costs were thus absorbed by them.
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