A few days after jumping over the fire with the painted cows at the Sankranthi festival in Mysore, cow advocate and veterinarian Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy invited me to another very unique cow festival in the neighboring state of Kerala. This festival was a Thulabharam, a type of pooja or blessing ceremony that would raise awareness about the endangered Kasargod dwarf cattle breed and raise funds for the Bajakulu goushala (cow sanctuary and research center) in Perla, Kerela that is helping to preserve this special breed. As Dr. Krishnamoothy described it in an e-mail to me, a Thulabharam “is a special SEVA (service) to Kasargod cow by donating any valuables equivalent to its weight. Generally the weight is around 150 kilograms. Vegetables, grains, cereals, honey, etc. are the items which are put in the scale. Anyone can do this SEVA, either by giving the items itself or by giving money to purchase this.”
The festival was put on to educate people in the Kasaragod region of Kerala about the importance of India’s desi, or native, breeds of cattle, which are declining in numbers. There are nearly 35 recognized breeds of cattle in India many of them reared by tribal people for centuries. Each of these breeds has unique attributes that help it cope with the weather and habitat in its regional locale. Kasaragod dwarf cattle are small animals that can survive on kitchen scraps and jungle forage. This allows people in the mountain jungles of Kerala and Karnataka to keep cattle for milk and manure fertilizer without having to grow or harvest hay or rice paddy stalks as cattle feed. Over the past half century, India’s native breeds have declined as Western breeds of cattle have been imported because they are seen as more productive milkers. Western breeds of cattle (bos Taurus) that are common dairy breeds in Northern climates like Holstein Fresian, Jersey, and Brown Swiss are the most popular breeds that have come to India and then crossed with native breeds to “improve” milk production. Like so many other modern solutions for increasing production, yield improves for a short time, but at a high cost.
Western cattle aren’t adapted to the heat, diseases, or parasites in Southern climates. India’s native cattle (bos Indicus) have humps – to help regulate hydration – and dewlaps – the loose skin hanging from the neck, which helps cattle release body heat and regulates their temperature. They have also evolved to withstand diseases, parasites, and calve easily without human assistance. Western cattle suffer terribly in the heat, which causes them to produce less milk. To solve this problem bos Taurus cattle have been crossed with bos Indicus cattle. The first generation of cattle usually yield larger quantities of milk, but after a few generations the milk production in hybrid cows reduces significantly. These hybrid cattle also require more feed, vaccinations, and medicines to help them cope with parasites. These are added costs that small farmers don’t always have the means to pay for. Even with these problems hybrids have become popular cattle even though India’s native cattle can be very good milkers if attention is paid to improving the breed through artificial selection. The Kasaragod cattle themselves are extremely productive for their size. A 150 kg (330 pound) cow can produce 3.5 liters (1 gallon) of milk a day, which is more than enough for a family to enjoy milk and dairy products every day without doing much more than feeding their cows kitchen scraps.
Did I mention that Kasaragod cattle are also extremely cute? When I arrived at the Bajakudlu gaushala after an eight-hour drive through what was mostly a windy one-track road through mountain jungle, I was greeted by full grown cattle so tiny that they made the chickens strutting amongst the herd look enormous. The Kasaragod cattle are perfectly proportioned diminutive versions of much larger native Indian cows, which gave me an eerie feeling I had stumbled into Gulliver’s travels. The workers at the gaushala pointed to one tiny black cow that was being sniffed over by a giant red siwal bull and they claimed the little black cow to be the smallest cow in the world. The cow was ten years old and only 71 centimeters tall. I was told they were waiting for the Guiness book people to officially deem it the world’s smallest cow. I can honestly say that it was the smallest cow that I had ever met and don’t imagine I will meet a smaller one.
I may have seen the smallest cow in the world, but at the festival ground I viewed one enormous scale. This is where the Thulabharam would take place. Thulabharam is usually done with people, where a person sits on one side of a scale and their offerings in the form of food like bananas, jaggery (raw sugar), or areca nuts (used like chewing tobacco in India) or other valuables, even gold, are placed on the other scale. My research revealed that anything may be blessed in this ceremony. One news story reported that even a movie film reel underwent a Thulabharam. In this Thulabharam a Kasargod cow weighing around 300 pounds would be on one side of the scale and the offerings would go on the other side. A blessing would be given to the cow and to the person or family participating in the ceremony. The grains, cereals, jaggery, or equivalent money would then be donated to the Goushala.
Rachel and I were among the 100 people that performed the Thulabharam ceremony during the festival. I chose to donate jaggery, a kind of raw sugar that is one of my favorite foods in India and is produced in Kerala. During the ceremony we said a prayer with a Hare Krishna priest who patiently instructed us through the chanting. Then we walked over to the cow and calf, which were suspended above the ground in their little paddock portion of the scale. We blessed the cow’s third eye with a red mark and blessed the top of her head with rice and flowers. We were then each given a stick of incense and a dish of fire to wave in a circular motion in front of the cow, purifying the blessing, and were directed to move to the other side of the scale where they were loading jaggery. We performed the purifying blessing with incense and fire over the jaggery as it was being loaded and then followed another prayer and the blessing was over. We were given a plaque and a Prasad (sweets given at temples to ‘sweeten’ the blessing) and were told that by blessing the cows not only would we be blessed but the blessings would also extend to our families. The Thulabharam was only one portion of the festival. A parade, traditional music concert, and program to educate the public about Kasargod cattle and the importance of other native breed were all part of the two day festivities.
This festival was arranged by Dr Y.V. Krishnamoothy and Jagadguru Shankaracharya Shree Shree Raghaveshwara Bharathi Swamiji who conducted a Thulabharam at his own Gaushala in Hosanagara, Karnataka two years ago. Swamiji has devoted his life to improving the welfare of cattle and preserving India’s native breeds of cattle. There are around 35 recognized native cattle breeds in India and at his gaushala in Hosanagara he has collected the majority of them, making his the largest collection of Indian cattle breeds in the world. The Swami was in attendance at the festival and his arrival at the Shiva temple in Perla was very well attended as was the colorful parade that followed. To view the look on Swamiji’s face when he gazed at a cow left no doubt in my mind that his love and devotion for cattle is divinely inspired. He is founder of the Kamadugha organization called Kamadugha whose mission is described as, “a massive environmental, agricultural, economic, and spiritual movement.” Last year he rode a bullock cart 2,000 kilometers across India to advocate for native breeds and cattle welfare. From the number of his enthusiastic and devoted followers I met at the festival, Swamiji is making an impact on people’s spiritual lives and educating people about how they might improve the lives of goumatha (mother cow).
To understand why the preservation of native breeds of cattle are important, you need to understand the integral role cattle have played to India’s culture throughout history. Cow milk is important as it is the only source of animal protein Hindus consume, and milk and milk products play a role in many Hindu rituals and medicines. But cattle have provided so much more to India’s heritage than just milk. Oxen pulled India’s first plows and are still used in small scale agriculture today for plowing and transporting goods, though cars, trucks, and tractors are replacing cattle as India becomes more industrialized. Historically cattle manure may be the most important product that cattle provided for India’s citizens. It has been used to fuel cooking fires and also as building material to make mud huts and walls. After a cow has died a natural death its leather can be used for shoes and other leather goods. People have also used manure as a home cleaning product. The manure from native cattle has antimicrobial properties and when used in a certain way gives a sheen to mud walls and floors. Manure and urine have been integral to farming, used in various organic composts, herbicides, and pesticides. In Aryuvedic medicine, India’s ancient traditional medicine, manure and urine have also been made into medicines reported to treat everything from cancer to male pattern baldness. It is because cows have provided so much to people without getting much in return that every hair on a cow’s body is considered a god.
Research continues to be done on the medicinal properties of cow manure and dung, especially with the breeds of miniature cattle, of which there are four remaining. It is believed that the medicinal properties of miniature cattle products are greater because their particles are smaller and better absorbed by the body. This is one reason that people like Swamiji and Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy are doing their best to keep the breed in existence. To a Westerner, using manure as a cleaning agent or a medicine seems incomprehensible, but in India, a country where people have been living side by side with cattle and relying on them for food, ritual worship, clothing materials, fuel, building materials, transportation, farm work, fertilizer, and medicine and giving reverence to them for centuries, cows don’t appear dirty. In modern farming there are many reasons that manure is viewed as dangerous or toxic. Because of the large amount of corn that beef cattle are fed in Western countries, which is a food that creates an abnormal amount of acid in cattles’ rumens, cow manure is often too acidic to be used as fertilizer. Antibiotics, which are also commonly used in cattle feed have created “super” bacteria, like e-coli 0157: H7. Various strains of e-coli is a bacteria found in humans and cattle alike, but the mutant strain is highly deadly and is resistant to antibiotics. This is a public health problem that is product of industrial food production and it is directly related to the Western attitude food animals can be treated like machines without concern for the animal’s biologic nature, physiology, and general welfare.
Even as India continues to become industrialized, cow manure rarely goes to waste and several research continues to be conducted on the benefits of manure, including the best methods for manufacturing manure compost and medicine. So, on the second day of the festival when I was received a gift of a face mask, bath oil, and foot balm made with cow Kasaragod dwarf cow milk, manure, and urine products and medicinal herbs, I understood the significance of the gift, even though it would be difficult to convince my friends back home to join me for a spa day. I was presented this gift for speaking at the opening ceremony for the education program of the festival. As a westerner many were interested to hear my thoughts about their native breeds. I am still learning all the ways that cattle and culture are interwoven in Indian culture, but it is clear that if India’s native breeds disappear so do the benefits of the animals that have been specially adapted to the environment and once those cattle are gone so do their unique gifts to mankind. A rich cultural heritage and way of living on the land is also lost forever. The benefits of modernization don’t have to eradicate what nature has already provided for humans. Our knowledge of biology and science can be used to enhance what has already been provided. I tried to express these thought in as simply and directly as I could in my short speech. I did not come to India to tell people how to live, but only to learn.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the unique and colorful festival and the miniature cows, I was overcome by the kindness and hospitality of everyone we met in Perla, many of whom were curious to know what two foreigners were doing in town. I am especially grateful to Dr. Y.V. Krishnamoothy and my very enthusiastic guide from Chennai, D.S. Shri Krihnabhat who made sure we didn’t miss a thing. It was inspiring to see the efforts people were making to save the Kasaragod dwarf cows, because preserving India’s native breeds is no small matter.