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The Traveller

Thursday, 2 April, 2015

Much is made of India’s reverence for cows. The nation is home to nearly 300 million bovines and the vast majority are free to roam the streets and countryside. For cattle throughout the rest of the world – branded, imprisoned and slaughtered – India must seem a veritable Eden. But all is not quite what it seems. Walk a mile in their hooves and you’ll discover that it’s not all R&R (rest and rumination) for the gentle beasts of India.

Bovine poverty is as real as the human equivalent in India. Tame, but lacking the security of a farm, cows are left to fend for themselves. The results are most evident in the cities, where skeletal urban cows amble down the middle of congested streets or stand roadside eating the inedible. They lap at deep brown puddles, suck on plastic bags and chew on cardboard boxes. Free range, yes. Organic, certainly not. In the city centres it’s sometimes hard to imagine the cows have ever seen grass, much less tasted it. In areas where grass does grow, resources are scarce enough without allowing millions of cattle to eat their fill.

The near-constant search for food also entangles India’s free-range cows in all manner of awkward situations. As conspicuous as they are numerous, you’ll find cows just about everywhere in India: sunning themselves on beaches; waiting in the doorways of restaurants for leftovers; immersed in public baths; and most commonly, ambling down roadways. Like gaffe-prone sitcom characters, they push social boundaries and test the patience of even the most ardent Hindus.

If cows aren’t as sacred in the subcontinent as we might imagine, cricket surely is. Fans pour over statistics like scripture and Sachin Tendulkar is worshipped as a demigod. Both cricketers and cows flock to even the smallest patch of grass to bat, bowl or chew on the greenery, and you’ll often find a few extra fielders at long-on or deep cover. Much to the annoyance of future Gangulys or Shastris (and to the delight of spectators,) the bulky imposters stop boundaries, interrupt run-ups and make a meal of the precious green blades.

Even more solemn occasions aren’t exempt from blundering hooves, and you can find plenty of them scattered around the open-air funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. The cows aren’t there to eulogise though. It’s the promise of a free meal in the form of a stray wreath and warmth from the fires that attracts the false mourners. It is equal parts strange, funny and macabre to see cows chewing nonchalantly on the last offerings to the recently departed. he end must also come for Daisy et al., and the subject of bovine death and disposal is largely taboo. It’s natural to assume that the revered cow is spared the terrible thud and slash of the abattoir, but the truth is more complex. Around 80 per cent of India’s population is Hindu and (ostensibly) vegetarian, but that still leaves many millions who are partial to a slab of rump or a T-bone steak. It may be hard to swallow for the devout, but India consistently ranks in the top few countries for both beef consumption and exportation. Only a handful of states have legalised slaughterhouses, but clandestine operations are thought to outnumber these legal slaughterhouse ten to one. The smuggling of cattle to India’s (overwhelmingly Muslim and beef-eating) neighbour, Bangladesh, is rife. Combine this unregulated environment with the abundance of Indian cows and widespread economic hardship and you have a recipe for… beef. Lots and lots of sacrilegious beef.

For those that don’t meet their maker at the sharp end of a blade, malnutrition and disease are likely alternatives, and the subsequent methods of body disposal less than dignified. I’ll never forget rounding a corner just outside the peaceful Himalayan village of Manali to see a dead cow being unceremoniously hauled from the back of a rickshaw-turned-ute and pushed over a 20-metre cliff.

The life of an Indian cow, then, is a tragicomedy. Gifted with the freedom the residents of Animal Farm dreamt of, but lacking the sustenance and security offered in captivity, the sacred creatures go about their subsistence lifestyle with an endearing lack of grace and subtlety. The end may not be pretty, but everything is relative; while the reality of their lives may not quite correlate with their sacred status, the terrible fate awaiting their bovine brethren in other nations is, at least, not such an inevitability. Despite life’s many difficulties, it seems the grass is still (metaphorically) greener in India for the millions of cows that grace her pastures.