To years ago, I visited Dr. P.K. Singh the principal scientist at the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) in Karnal, Haryana. The NBAGR is dedicated to preserving, researching, and improving native breeds of livestock in India. Dr. Singh has surveyed every tribal people who breed and maintain native cattle. He graciously spent two days showing me farms around Karnal, informing me about the importance of India’s native breeds, and answering all my questions about cattle and culture. Dr. Singh suggested I visit a Gaushala in Karnataka that had nearly every breed of native cattle in one place to view the vast diversity of India’s cattle. At that time it seemed like a pie in the sky idea, but this year I was fortunate enough to be escorted to the Gaushala at Hosnanagara, Shimoga, in Karnataka by Dr. Singh’s associate Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy where I had an up close and personal tour of India’s diverse, beautiful, and fascinating native cattle.
Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy is the director of animal husbandry at the Honsanagara Shree Ramachandrapuramath Gaushala for Swami Shreemad Jagadguru Shankaracharya Shree Shree Shree Raghaveshwara Bharati Mahaswamiji. I had already met India’s smallest breed of cattle, the Kasaragod, earlier this year at the Thulumbhara pooja festival and information seminar in Perla, Kerala, where Dr. Krishnamoothy also served as my host. This time I met the doctor in Mangalore and we started our journey to the Gaushala by car through the stunning jungle mountains of the South West coast of India called the Western Ghats. These densely forested mountains still harbor tigers and other rare Indian wildlife. The 5 hour car ride wove through this beautiful landscape, clean and bright villages, and farmland. The journey gave the Doctor and I ample time to discuss the issues facing India’s native cattle and his role as a cattle advocate for his organization.
For centuries, India’s tribal people have lived, worked, and died along side their cattle. Cattle are revered for their gifts to humanity – labor, food, material goods, and medicine. Maybe more than any other culture in the world, Indians have found a multiplicity of uses for cattle and their products. As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, cattle have been and are still used as tractors to pull plows and transport goods in carts, their manure is used to fertilize fields, make cooking fuel, as a building material, a cleaning agent and is used to make a variety of soaps and medicines. Their urine is also important in agricultural preparations and medicine. Cattle hides are turned into leather for clothing, belts, shoes, bags, and book-bindings. Their milk is often the only source of animal protein that certain Hindus will eat and is processed into curd (yogurt), paneer (fresh cheese), butter, buttermilk, chai (milk tea), and ghee (clarified butter used as cooking oil). Without the services and products that cattle provide life would be more laborious for humans and arguably less delicious.
On the five hour drive to the Gaushala, Dr. Krishnamoothy discussed the issues surrounding native cows. For most of India’s history, cows were more important for labor and fertilizer and milk was a welcome bi-product, but not the main reason to keep cattle. This has changed over the past fifty years. In my last blog, I touched on the Green Revolution, which changed India’s agriculture from organic farming to chemical based farming with government subsidized urea fertilizer. Since then herbicides and pesticides have become widely used as well. This initially increased the amount of food that was produced per hectare, but today the environmental costs have compounded and the continual increased use of urea is currently causing public health problems such as an increase in gout and spondylosis (degenerative osteoarthritis) as well as environmental problems like polluted water sheds and drinking water. During the late sixties India underwent a second agricultural revolution called the “White Revolution” in which the government promoted the use of India’s native Zebu cattle crossed with European dairy cattle to increase the production of milk. If a farmer wished to “improve” their native cattle by breeding them with European breeds the government provided subsidies for artificial insemination of foreign breed dairy cattle semen.
The idea of breeding cattle using artificial insemination was initially resisted by farmers who, for religious reasons, believed that fertility should occur as nature and the gods and goddesses intended, but eventually bank balances began to overcome religious dogma and cross-bred cows became more common. This initially resulted in cows that did provide more milk. But the inability of the cross-bred cows to withstand the heat, and parasites affected production and the successive generations of cross-bred cows did not produce as much milk as the first generation of cross-bred cattle. But the government continued to promote crossbred cattle and continued the subsidies. Improving mixed breeds continues to be studied at institutions like the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) in Karnal, Haryana – which I saw when I visited the institute two years ago. Aside from the problems with cow welfare, the emphasis on breeding dairy cattle that are not used to plow fields or pull carts (considered dual purpose breeds) has resulted in unwanted “useless” bull calves being turned onto the streets or sold for the underground slaughter trade in beef. It is illegal to slaughter cattle in every state but two in India, yet there remains an underground trade in cattle meat sold to Muslims and Christians (Hindus never eat beef, though they are increasingly eating chicken and goats). The cattle are butchered in facilities that process water buffalo. And worst of all, the promotion of crossbred cattle has resulted in the erosion of India’s amazingly diverse native breeds of cattle.
Dr. Krishnamoothy told me that both agricultural revolutions the government has planned have damaged the economy. This is a significant issue since seventy percent of India’s population lives in the countryside and the majority of those people farm. Ultimately, the loss of India’s native cattle is the loss of an important part of India’s culture. The unique gifts that these cattle offer to sustainable agriculture in the places where they evolved will not easily be replaced once they are gone. Dr. Krishnamoothy is doing his part to maintain India’s cultural heritage by managing the animal husbandry of the 30 different breeds of cattle while also procuring enough dry and green feed for the vast herd. He and his family live in Perla, Kerala, a fair distance away from the Gaushala in Shimoga and he also travels the length and breath of India finding bulls for each of the breeds, which must be changed every four years to prevent inbreeding in the herds. The most pressing thing on Dr. Krishnamoothy’s mind at the moment is finding the funding to build a feed processing facility at the Gaushala where they intend to process 50-70 tons of cattle feed per month. They also need to buy ten hectares of land to increase their fresh feed production and improve their existing farmland. He hoped that I could offer some avenues for funding. Unfortunately for the moment all I can offer in ways of funding are my words and the ability to share my experience of this beautiful and important Gaushala. If you would like to donate to the Gaushala at Hosanagara please contact Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy at gou @hareraama.in or donate directly to his organization here: http://www.vishwahitam.org
Finally, we reached the Gaushala where I would see the majority of India’s native breeds of cattle. The complex was serene and orderly and the doctor introduced me to my guide while he disappeared to attend to his business. My guide, Usha, was a woman who served as the computer expert and accountant for the Gaushala, and was a delightful and gracious guide. She first took me to the Ayurvedic panchagavya processing facility. Panchagavya roughly translates to “five cow products”, which are milk, curd, ghee, urine, and dung. Their pamphlet says “all these medicinal values are seen only in Indigenous cow’s products. Indigenous cows are useful to human beings as sources of medicine/economy/food/agriculture/energy, etc.” The doctor had told me that pure native cow products were more valuable for medicine and agriculture because of their increasing scarcity. For example a farmer is usually paid 16-20 rupees for a liter of milk, but now a liter of indigenous cow milk will fetch 35 rupees/liter. They make 24 products at the facility which include medicines that claim to increase the body’s resistance to cancer, treat gastric disorders, swelling, inflammation, disorders of nose and eyes, head aches, cold, or sinus problems and skin diseases; beauty products like face masks, hair toners, and tooth powder; agriculture products such as pesticide and a product that improves worm compost; and cleaning products like a dung based floor cleaner. Westerners may scoff at the effectiveness of these natural products, but scientific studies on several of these products are showing positive results.
At last I was shown to the barns, which were filled with cattle of every size and color. Almost all of the cattle were tied to troughs inside the long covered sheds, but some of the cattle were wandering loose and would come up to sniff me when I bent down to take a picture or ask for a head scratch. The cows were extremely friendly and several of them stood on their troughs to get a better position from which to have their heads and ears scratched. I had seen most of the big dairy breeds on my travels through Rajasthan and I had met Haryana and Gangatiri breeds when I visited Varanasi. I was getting better at differentiating a tiny jungle cow from a “normal” baby cow after going to the miniature cow festival in Perla, Kerala and recognized several of the native Southern breeds of working cattle I had seen pulling carts through the streets of Mysore and plows through the ubiquitous rice paddies of South India. But to see all the breeds gathered together was a truly special experience, made more so by the fact that I also gave most of them a scratch behind the ears. I left the Gaushala with a camera card full of photos and a joyful feeling in my heart. Preserving India’s indigenous breeds of cattle not only ensures that their unique gifts to humanity will remain available, but also their unique beauty, which in my opinion is well worth saving.