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
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.

-Jodi

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.

38 thoughts on “Why are Cows Sacred in India?”

  1. Never have I heard a boar described as “cute,” but oh well. This reminds me of the llamas in South America, or the West Side Story gangs of dogs in Moldova. City life is so insular than seeing even a little nature is a moment for photography.

  2. Hahaha! What a fun post! Yeah, totally recognizable. I saw numerous cows and wondered how many accidents must happen because of them. Cool idea for a post. I might just steal it from you and do a similar post with my own cow pics. Hope you don’t mind;-).

    So you are in Montreal now? Lived there for 6 years; love that city.

    Hope you will soon be able to visit your dad! Happy holidays.

  3. Wow, there really ARE cows everywhere, haha! I like how diverse the cows are but I can only imagine what a pain it is to deal with the constantly!

  4. Haha this is so awesome. Although I have been chased by cows on more than one occasion (what, hasn’t everybody??) so I might have actually been a little freaked out. That spotted cow is really beautiful, though!

  5. I love it. It brings back memories (and smells) of India. I never did see henna’d cows – that is something new and interesting.

    I love how they just take over a street sometimes.

  6. [Laughs]. Now this was a fun read. A bunch of friendly (and stubborn) cows was the last thing I thought I’ll encounter today.

    I’m launching my travel blog today, so I thought I’ll start of by making some friends with travel blogging ninjas like yourself.

    You’ll see me around here again. Happy new year!

  7. Superb story telling Jodi! Thanks for sharing. Travel offers us insight into normality in the locations we visit. I love how the world is so varied and colourful!

  8. Fun post! I too have way too many photos and sketches of cows in Inida :) enjoyed your photos and descriptions.

  9. I love this photoessay. One of my goals is to go visit India in the next few years.

    The henna’d cows are wonderful! I wonder what that process looks like…

  10. I cannot HANDLE how cute this post is! First of all, good on your mother for coping so well with India… I’m not sure I’d ever get my mother to do that with me. And two, how cute are those cows?! I love it! If Ryan and I ever get to India, I’m pretty sure we won’t get very far very fast because I’ll be taking pictures of ALL the cows. It was hard enough for us to get through South Africa, with all the beautiful animals there. I know you love photographing food and writing about food, but I’m going to have to make a request here: Can we have a Jodi + animal series to go with your Jodi Eats? Who knows what you’d call it…

  11. Very entertaining. I heard about the cows like yourself and being from Ireland I am very used to cows but I can imagine the cows being on the road, in doorways takes a while to get used to.

    1. One calf let itself be scratched behind the ears but got tired of it quickly and then tried to bite. They weren’t aggressive, but I wouldn’t say they were friendly either — doubt people interact with them in ways that would train them to be in the first place :)

  12. Love this! So many cows in India. Our favorite cow moment was in Jaisalmer when a cow started walking up the steps into our hotel! When the manager saw that our way out was blocked by the cow he grabbed a few couch pillows and start smacking it around, in effect getting it go back down the stairs! Can’t say this is a problem for most hotels around the world!

  13. Hi Jodi!
    Its nice to see your post. I am from India. Sometimes I wonder why there are so many cows on our streets? Is it because of our religious sentiments towards cows or is it because of our laziness?
    Yes, we do respect cows in India but it doesn’t mean we are ok with seeing them on streets.
    You know I feel jealous for you cause you have the best life style one can have. I love to travel but I can’t.
    But good luck to you.

  14. The ad text in the background of the last picture with the calf translates to “Contact Us for Attractive Pictures”, seemed appropriate for a photo essay.

  15. Hi, I am from India and it was interesting to read this blog.
    I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading some part of it because the article revealed India in a poor taste, in some places – obviously not your fault. You were only trying to show what you saw. These are things that we need to keep in mind.
    BTW, now I know why a foreigner was taking selfies with a cow on our recent trip to South Goa! :)

  16. George Carruthers

    I was looking for a historical explanation of why cows are sacred, not a story of your life which I’m sure you find interesting. Perhaps changing the name of the title too My trip to India with my Mom?

    1. Hi George, thank you for reading. Perhaps if you weren’t interested in a backstory, you are best reading Wikipedia and not a personal blog? I question your willingness to leave a comment just to be grumpy instead of closing the tab, but either way my readers are keen on the backstory. They’ve made it clear they want more, and not less of it.

  17. Hey Jodi,
    Just finished reading this wonderful article… I’m from India and we have a cow of our own at our home… Reading this article of yours made me chuckle a number of times..
    You have a great sense humour… keep them coming, we love you.
    Thanks

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