As the symbol of Lord Krishna (one of the incarnations of Hindu Gods), the cow is considered sacred. Growing up in India, I saw cows roaming the streets all the time. A few times, I even stepped on fresh cow dung piles when not attentive while walking to school. I had the habit of watching the colorful movie posters, palm readers, fortunetellers, people hawking medicinal herbs and other knick-knacks on the sidewalk, and ignoring the upcoming traffic. While rickshaws pulled away from me to prevent accidents, the roaming animals didn’t care. Once, a woman pulled me away from a bull about to lift me with its horns. I could have walked on the sidewalk but then beggars and hawkers permanently occupied it. Besides the animals have the right-of-way on sidewalks as well.
On streets, both cows and goats compete to feed on banana peels, waste papers, and movie wall posters. Cows always won since they are taller, and with their far-reaching tongues somehow unglue the posters from the wall and ate, eyes closed, with great satisfaction. The glue containing rice or wheat flour made posters more palatable. Thirty years later, working in the recycling business in Unites States, I realized that perhaps the street-roaming cows in India did a better job in recycling waste paper than modern technologies.
A bull and a bunch of cows belonged to our neighbor Mr. Panda permanently occupied a piece of land at our street corner. Panda is a common last name of people who emigrated from a neighboring Province of Orissa. Panda made his living by selling betel leaves and milk from his cows.
Growing betel leaves is a big business in India. From betel-growing areas, fresh cut leaves are exported to various parts of the country. Every morning, Panda picked up his consignment of fresh betel or paan leaves from the railway or bus station for distribution to local roadside kiosks or paan shops. Paan or killi, as is known in South India, is made by placing ground areca nut (harvested from the areca tree, which looks like a palm tree), a little bit of lime, and sweet-tasting essence of rose on one or two betel leaves, then the whole mixture is folded into a conical shaped paan or sweet paan. Folding a paan is an art and takes less than five seconds for an expert paan maker or paan wallah to make it. People chew paan as a stimulant after lunch or dinner for good digestion. The added lime in the paan would release alkaloids in the leaves, this I later learned in college. To get additional kick, ground tobacco is added, on request, then it is called jaradha paan. Some people chew paan all the time, it’s a kind of addiction. I have tried sweet paan but never jaradha paan.
One of our distant relatives Shivarao had a habit of chewing jaradha paan. He visited us once in a blue moon, unannounced. I am sure he was named after Lord Shiva (God of Destruction), one of the Major Hindu gods. While Gods Vishnu and Brahma were believed to be stationary in Swarga Loka or heaven, Shiva is a roaming god who lives on earth, famous for wild dancing after the destruction of evil forces with his firepower. He is a kind of a lightening that causes forest fires that destroys dead wood. He then rubs the ashes on his skin.
In our extended family circles, parents warned their children never to end up like our relative Shivarao, known for roaming from place to place. A low-level civil servant in a town a few hundred miles away, Shivarao traveled on trains with no ticket, masquerading as either a singing panhandler or hawking knick-knacks. My father never liked him. He suspected that Shivarao was after something every time he visited us. A habitual small-time thief, he stole small articles such as ballpoint pens, small toys, and other knick-knacks. Given my good eye for detective work, I was given the responsibility of following him in our huge house. Shivarao knew that we suspected his intentions in our house, and said this to me when I followed him from room to room.
One thing I liked about Shivarao was his habit of chewing spicy Jaaradha paan. One day I gathered enough courage to ask for a taste. To my surprise, he gave it with a warning that I should keep this as a secret. Just after few minutes of chewing, I felt dizzy and started throwing up. He said I shouldn’t have swallowed the juice and the stuff was not for kids like me. To tell the truth, he was scared to death when he saw me throwing up since my father would kick him out of the house if he knew about this incident. This event did not relieve me of my duty of following him around.
Shivarao and I once went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Like most others, he spitted out the red colored saliva generated in his mouth while chewing paan, everywhere; on streets, sidewalks, or on private and public building walls. The public never took notice of warning signs such as “ No spitting please,” “Stick no bills” (advertisement posters), “Beware of dogs,” or “Please do not urinate or defecate,” displayed everywhere.
Our neighbor Panda, the owner of the cows, was a habitual paan user. I never saw him feed his cows at the street corner. Most of the time, his animals roamed the streets for waste papers or wall posters, competing with goats that belonged to a fair-skinned Muslim woman who lived down the street.
The expression “Holy Cow” comes from the animal’s sacred status. The cows on street are like roaming temples for most Hindus. People touched the cow’s butt with the palm of their hands and then carefully drew back the palm to touch their foreheads, as if receiving some kind of blessing. It is kind of a prayer in slow motion- to touch the butt of moving animal. I was tempted to do this once, during test-taking time at school, and being nervous about my math test. I was timid to touch the animal’s butt with fear of being hit by its tail, or worse, get caught up at a time when the cow may start to defecate on me. Besides, only older people and women receive cow blessings this way. So, I kept away from the cow’s butt altogether.
The cow dung is also sacred when it comes to house-blessing (warming) ceremonies in India. The owners bless newly constructed homes before occupancy. The blessing ceremony (unlike the house-warming ceremony in the United States) is strictly religious, long, and complicated. Cows (never bulls) play important roles in house-blessing ceremonies. A family friend built an expensive house and invited us among others for his home-blessing ceremony. A cow was allowed first into the house followed by the Hindu priests chanting prayers for continuing prosperity of the owner. If the cow defecates in the foyer, it is a good omen. Since homes have either terrazzo concrete or marble floor, cleaning is no problem. Our friend was very superstitious about ceremonies of this nature. He insisted that not only the foyer but also all the rooms in the house should be blessed with cow dung. It was unsightly and even gross to some of the invitees unaccustomed to this tradition, and they became restless while waiting for the animal to pass the dung in each and every room. Luckily, the priest knowing our friend’s psyche brought another cow along to double up and finished the job of soiling the floors with cow dung. This was a classic case where, what is dirt (cow dung in this case) to somebody is gold to others.
Donating a cow is perhaps the holiest gift one can give to a priest. Very few can afford to buy and donate them. Besides, it is impractical to haul a cow to high-rise apartments or even to single homes to make a donation to the priest after the Puja or religious ceremony. Therefore, the priest brings a small idol of cow (made up of clay or dough) and lets the people donate it back as a symbolic gesture. This does not mean the people were off the hook to pay the price of a cow. As symbolic as the transfer may be, the priest expects to get dakshen or monetary gift equivalent to cow or whatever the people can afford. It is a kind of trading Futures in Livestock that takes place on Wall Street; where no actual transfer of pork bellies or live cattle take place, but only transfer of funds. It appears that Hindus were in the business of trading cattle futures long before anybody albeit-clay or dough cows for live cows.
While most families buy milk from street vendors, we bought fresh milk at our doorsteps. Rajamma, the milk lady, brought her cow to our front yard early in the morning to milk her cow and supply us with fresh milk; a luxury only few people could afford. Rajamma belongs to Golla caste. For centuries, the people of this caste dominated the dairy business. Hindus believe that Lord Krishna belong to this caste. My mother assigned me the duty of watching Rajamma so that she won’t mix water to the milk while milking her cow; dilution is a simple solution to improve her profit margin. Rajamma was tall and slim, as opposed to many South Indian women who are short. She was cunning in many ways in duping people. For example, she starts milking into a container already containing some water in it, or will hide a small can containing water nearby to mix with the milk or will hide a separate can of water in the hay bales she brings with her to feed the cow. I figured out all of her tricks while on duty guarding her. I used to sit in our front porch watching like a detective. Sometimes, she would ask me to fetch some water for the animal or something like that to distract me. But, she had a tough time cheating while I was guarding her. We boiled the fresh milk before use, a kind of sterilization since it was not pasteurized. Even today, pasteurized milk is boiled unnecessarily in many Indian households for the taste. Centuries old habits diehard.
One morning Rajamma didn’t turn up at our house, so we bought stale milk from a street vendor. Our servant found out the bad news; Rajamma’s husband committed suicide by jumping into a well. He was a middle-aged foreman and used to work in a naval yard. Months later, it was rumored that he killed himself on suspicion that Rajamma was sleeping with her stepson. We never saw Rajamma again; I am not sure what happened to her or to her cows.
It was obvious to many that I belonged to Brahmin caste, even to strangers. My meek physical appearance and the clear pronunciation of my native language “Telugu” distinguished me from people of other castes. This was the case at least when I was a young boy in the fifties, when much disparity existed in education standards between Brahmins and other caste people. The educated Brahmins occupied the respectable positions. Those who took priesthood worked in Hindu temples or earned their livings by conducting religious ceremonies and weddings. Some took up jobs as professional cooks, specializing in vegetarian cuisine. And the very poor Brahmins worked as undertakers in Brahmin funerals. While upper-caste Hindus in India eat meat of all kinds but never beef since cow, the symbol of Lord Krishna is the source of beef. Brahmins, particularly in South India did not eat meat or even eggs at all, as it was a religious custom not to eat these products. So I grew up without eating any meat or even eggs.
Plain Yogurt, perhaps disliked by many, is the favorite item in any Brahmin meal. Without yogurt and ghee (clarified butter), no meal is complete in any Brahmin household. My mother made ghee at home by slowly cooking the butter. At the end of clarification, the clear butter oil is ghee, and the brown sediments collected at the bottom of the pot is called Godavari, named after the sacred South Indian River that deposits nutrient rich sediments on the banks of the river. People eat Godavari by mixing it with steamed rice and little bit of salt. I tasted this several times and it was good, though very greasy. We stored Ghee for weeks without it getting rancid in our warm climate.
A bit of melted ghee poured over steamed rice mixed with vegetable curry was a delicious and everyday meal at our house. Some priests got fat bellies from eating too much ghee served freely in religious ceremonies. My grandmother told me that her father, a priest by profession, ate so much ghee in one sitting at a ceremony, he abstained from eating meals for several days after. In some ancient Brahmin houses, concrete benches were built in their verandahs for men to lay flat on their stomachs and roll to digest their belly fat, a kind of modern-day fat-burning exercises in slow motion.
While the cow is sacred and enjoyed the godly status, its male counterpart remained at the opposite extreme. Except for a very few bulls, which have the full-time occupation of mating with cows, the majority of males are castrated and put to work. I did not know the difference between a bull and a bullock until I went to agricultural college. I was taught at the college that a castrated animal or bullock is easy to control and works hard whereas an uncastrated animal or bull is only interested in fooling around with cows.
On the route to my school was an oil-seed grinding-mill that depended entirely on a bullock for its power source. The bullock walked round and round, hour after hour, non-stop, a yoke on its neck connected to grinding rollers at the center. A man sitting on the top constantly poured oil seeds into the center of the rolling gears for grinding to extract oil. On the way back from school, I used to stand by the curbside and watched this man at the mill pouring the seeds. He was always angry and waved his hand at me to move on. Sometimes, he shouted at me to go away, although I was not on his premises. The animal was blindfolded all the time. Later in my life, I understood a common saying in my language “ganugadhu chakeri,” or life of a bullock at the grinding mill, an expression to describe if somebody’s career was stuck and going nowhere; like the man at the grinding mill who was always mad at me.
The main road in front of our house was opened to all traffic such as bicycles, autos, rickshaws and even bullock-carts. The road was uneven and had a steep incline. The bullocks had a tough time pulling the carts, particularly if the loads were heavy. The men sitting on the carts beat the animals with sticks or whips and shouted at them to push forward through the steep incline. Sometimes, kindhearted bystanders helped the animals by pushing the cart from behind. All these animals developed hard scar tissue on their humps from carrying the heavy wooden yokes. Cow, an eternal god, symbolizes Lord Krishna, and the bull is born to perform menial jobs or worse a slave, beaten to death.
A few old bulls or bullocks were used for entertaining people at the street corners; these were the lucky ones. Some people trained these animals to dance to music and used them for making a living at sideshows. In the fortune-telling show, the handler would allow customers to ask a question, for a fee, about their future and the Gangiradhu or dancing bullock would shake its head or raise its foot, if the answer was positive. The handler secretly would send signals to the animal, using his own hand or head when to shake its head or raise its foot (like hand signals used in baseball). People loved the whole far-fetched show. The animals were clothed colorfully, and decorated with bells and whistles to make them attractive.
Eventually, the old animals die from natural causes to become food for the poor people, “a grand farewell at last for the poor beast and a feast for the poorest of the poor people.”