The cow has discerning taste.
Ignoring a selection of colourful scarves, carved trinkets and jewelry, it homes in on a bag of potato chips, snatches it from the shelve and swallows it whole. The store owner shrugs; there is nothing he can do.
India has 30% of the world’s cattle and sometimes it seems they’re all roaming the streets at once, particularly in the holy city of Varanasi. They wander into traffic choked streets, adding to the general chaos with the placid demeanour of bovines grazing somewhere in the remote Alps. If so inclined, the cows lay-down for a rest in the middle of the fray—no amount of prodding can convince them to move.
Navigating the holy animals is a delicate and daily exercise. Usually, the bovines are docile; but sometimes they’re not.
Waiting to cross a dark street in Ahmedabad, I’m suddenly caught up in a crush of fellow pedestrians and a man grabs my arm. I begin to panic—am I being robbed? Where’s Noel? Turns out I had a guardian angel; the man pulled me out the way of an angry cow charging straight at me—my saviour kept me out of harm’s way.
Luck was on my side again in Varanasi when a disgruntled bull ran past, slicing my day pack, but leaving me unscathed
Cows are venerated as a sacred symbol of life by most Indians; one that requires protection and reverence. Hindus see cows as giving creatures who ask nothing in return; milk, cheese, and butter (or ghee) provide sustenance. Urine is believed to have medicinal benefit and dung can be burned for fuel. Cosmetics using urine and dung are now for sale—think I’ll skip those.
Cow’s even have their own holiday—Gopashtami—when they’re washed and draped with flowers.
Cow dung has a special spiritual significance in Hinduism and is used during pujas or worship ritual. During Diwali, the Festival of Light, we watched as residents painstakingly molded fresh dung outside the entrance to their homes, carefully placing candles and flowers inside the sculptures.
Hindus see feeding roaming cows as an act that brings good luck—many make the rounds to the same houses at the same time every day. Cows also frequent fruit and vegetable stalls, where they search for handouts or root through discarded, rotting food.
But mostly they gorge on garbage—including plastic bags that can invade their internal organs and lead to a slow, painful death. In one extreme case, doctors at the Bihar Veterinary College removed 80 kg of plastic from a six year old cow’s stomach.
The plastic diet isn’t so healthy for consumers either; cows with a steady diet of trash and toxins don’t produce healthy milk. Unscrupulous milk sellers peddle their contaminated product door to door at reduced rates to Indian parents who, like parents everywhere, want their children to get a healthy head-start in life.
India's also seen a massive increase in the number of stray cows roaming city streets as a result of recent changes to the country's penal code. Cow slaughter is now punishable with life imprisonment in some Indian states; even transporting beef for slaughter could result in a 10-year jail-term.
Animals previously transported to states with less restrictive laws now have nowhere to go. Gangs of cow vigilantes even stop trucks suspected of transporting cows or beef, dealing out their own brand of sometimes deadly justice.
The laws are controversial in India and abroad; many believe it’s a discriminatory power-play by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist Party aimed at further sidelining the country’s non-Hindu minorities, including Muslims.
Whatever the reason, the result has been that farmers—unable to feed cows they can no longer sell or slaughter—are quietly turning them loose in neighbouring villages or on nearby roads with devastating consequences; trampled, destroyed crops and an increase in road accidents involving cows.
Finding a solution for the rising number of stray cattle in a country where reverence for cows is sacrosanct will be Herculean.
But far from being considered a hindrance, the cows continue to be beloved and protected—even when they’re shoplifting potato chips.