How are cows doing?

in Coimbatore, India
551 words, 3 minutes to read

I figured you'd ask. Many languages outside of India have the expression “sacred cows”, so the way these animals are treated here became a bit of a legend. We were curious ourselves, how much of it is true? We found that some of it is, in some places, some of the time.

The story goes (in case you haven't heard it) that cows in India are worshiped by the Hindus as representing fertility and nurturing. Eating beef is obviously off limits, and the animals are free to roam the roads, meadows and wherever they may please. Even the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affair's travel guide includes a remark, that doing any harm to a cow (hitting it with a car, for instance) may cause serious trouble with the locals.

We have met a number of cows. In Mysuru and throughout lowland Kerala they've been walking largely unobstructed, munching on whatever they found tasty. Plants, grass, flowers hanging off cars and motorcycles. Elsewhere not so much. None in Bengaluru I remember and none so far in Coimbatore. In Kochi, as in Munnar, there were lots of goats instead.

Cow eating flowers off a motorcycle

Cow eating flowers off a motorcycle

Some of them were clearly owned and herded. At Kuzhupilly Beach a number of residents owned cows, usually no more than one or two—it was a pretty poor neighborhood—which were kept close to the houses, milked and otherwise taken care of. I suspect all the animals we've seen walking without any binding were also ultimately watched over by somebody. They weren't “wild cows” if you will.

Finding beef on the menu is rare, but it does occur. We saw it once or twice. And I'm sure we'd see more if we went to non-Indian restaurants. India being this big and diverse obviously hosts various people, some of whom would never eat beef, while others happily would.

Having said that, an article in The Hindu newspaper caught my attention:

[O]fficials found there was no evidence of cow slaughter by Mohammed Akhlaq, who was beaten and lynched in 2015 on the suspicion of storing beef in his house at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. [emphasis mine]

SC seeks response on plea for reining in cow vigilantes, The Hindu

The same text mentioned another incident, very recent “in Alwar, Rajasthan, where a man was lynched by a mob claiming to be cow protectors” whom the press calls colorfully “cow vigilantes". It appears these groups are even protected by the law:

[T]he Gujarat Animal Prevention Act, 1965 which deemed that all who acted to protect cows were public servants and no legal action shall be instituted against them. [emphasis mine]

SC seeks response on plea for reining in cow vigilantes, The Hindu

Doing harm to a cow, and often even the suggestion that somebody may have done such, may be life threatening in some areas of India—mostly in the northern states. Down here in the south it's probably safer, although we still wouldn't like to be involved in any controversies.

Are the stories about the status of cows in India true? It's complicated. As much as the fabric of this country is. In our culinary choices, we're betting on the safest option—chicken. Or forfeiting even that and going vegetarian, which seems to be accepted by everybody, no matter their origin or religious views.