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When photojournalist Dave Gerow arrived in India for a month of traveling, he was anticipating all sorts of terrific tastes and stunning sights. The one thing he was unprepared for were the 300 million cows wandering the streets of India. Read on as TeaTime-Mag delves into the unique importance placed on cows in this country.
Text and Photography by: Dave Gerow
Country: India

hen I first arrived in India, I was looking forward to seeing the great sights of the subcontinent: The Taj Mahal, the Ganges River, the beaches of Goa. I was well prepared to experience a good deal of pushing and shoving in this country of 1.2 billion; I knew the streets would be jammed with cars, motorcycles, buses and tuktuks, all sounding musical horns. I was ready to endure the sight of thousands of mutilated beggars at traffic lights being turned away from the tinted windows of the world’s most expensive cars. Nothing, I thought, could take me by surprise during my travels in the world’s largest Hindu -dominated nation. But I must admit I was unprepared for one thing: the holy cows.

I knew, of course, that India was full of cows. I had seen pictures of narrow alleyways clogged with cattle, traffic backed up by lingering bulls. Street cows have long been synonymous with India, but I wasn’t ready for the sheer volume of cows on the streets. There are nearly 300 million cows in India: That’s one cow for every four people! And in cities like Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai, where the sidewalks are already jam-packed with pedestrians, a few disgruntled cows can really upset the flow of traffic.

Cows have long held a special place in Hindu culture. Lord Krishna, one of Hinduism’s holiest figures, is said to have walked the earth as a cowherd. Hindus see cows as wholly giving animals, supplying humans with milk and labour while asking nothing in return. Mahatma Gandhi, India’s greatest spiritual leader, suggested that respecting cows was “the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism”.

Thanks to the famous cattle preservation laws, it is illegal to kill or harm a cow in six states in India – the same is true in neighboring Nepal, another Hindu-dominated nation. The slaughter of cattle in India is allowed with restrictions, such as the ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate which is awarded based upon factors like the age and gender of cattle, in fourteen states. This affects every aspect of daily life, from the commercial to the culinary. For example, McDonald’s restaurants in India bear signs stating that they don’t sell beef. Nor do they sell pork due to India’s substantial Muslim population; McDonald’s in India is mostly a fried chicken restaurant.

And of course, religious festivals are often centered around cows. Milk is drunk by or poured on Hindus during high holidays, and all year round it is common to see cows with painted heads being led through the streets. Hindus pay a rupee or two for the privilege of touching these sacred animals to receive blessings.

But despite cow protection legislation and the general social stigma around harming cows, most Indian cattle lead very unpleasant lives. Although Indians are not allowed to injure the cows, they are not obligated to help them either, so the cows on India’s busy streets tend to be malnourished and desperate. They can frequently be seen eating garbage from dumpsters, tearing open plastic bags to eat whatever may be inside, and very often ingesting the bags themselves. In my thirty days in India, I only once saw a person feed a cow. I smiled at her as I walked by and she very seriously said to me, “Cow is god.”

I myself walked around with bags of peas to distribute to the cows. I threw them out of tuktuks and dropped them beside me as I walked. I wanted to feed a cow by hand, but gave up on that dream when I saw a truly enormous cow have a minor mental breakdown on the street and ram another pedestrian against a wall (the man was only slightly injured). After seeing that, I decided that the cows are best helped from a safe distance. So if you ever find yourself face to face with a holy cow, be calm and respectful, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a pocketful of peas.

Info Box
- The cow remains a protected animal in Hinduism today and Hindus do not eat beef - Most rural Indian families have at least one dairy cow, who is often treated as a member of the family - The five products (panchagavya) of the cow — milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung — are all used in puja (worship) as well as in rites of extreme penance


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Easy Summary

When I arrived in India, I was excited to see the great sights of the country. But I was unprepared for one thing: the holy cows.

I knew that India was full of cows because I had seen pictures. However I wasn’t ready for the enormous volume of cows on the streets. There are nearly 300 million cows in India: That is one cow for every four people! .

Cows have always held a special place in Hindu culture. Lord Krishna, one of Hinduism’s holiest figures, supposedly walked the earth as a cowherd. Mahatma Gandhi, India’s greatest spiritual leader, suggested that respecting cows was ‘the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism’. Religious festivals are often centered around cows. Milk is drunk by or poured on Hindus during important holidays.

India has famous laws in six of its states which make it illegal to kill or harm a cow. This affects daily life in India. For example, McDonald’s restaurants in India don’t sell beef. McDonald’s in India is mostly a fried chicken restaurant.

Even though there are laws to protect cows, most Indian cows lead very unpleasant lives. Although Indians are not allowed to injure the cows, they are not obligated to help them either, so the cows on India’s busy streets are often malnourished and desperate.

 

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India’s blessed bovines

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