Today is the first day of Navratri and the first avatar of the Goddess Durga is Shylaputri whose vahana (mount) is Nandi, the bull. There is are several reasons for why cows and bulls are so highly revered in Indian society. The first and most obvious one of course, is that it is absolutely fear-inducing and awe-inspiring to see someone riding a bull (see video here).
Bulls have been traditionally used for war (to drag the carts and cannons and to stampede over the enemy’s infantry). They are used in agriculture (ploughing using bullocks or bulls is preferable to using large tractors for small land holdings). And the best bulls are of course used to improve the breed’s quality.
Cows play a similarly central role in traditional Indian households because, contrary to popular ‘westernised’ perception, just “giving milk” is not what they are actually used for.
For milking purposes, the animal of choice is the Indian buffalo. She typically yields between 20 to 30 litres of milk per day in exchange for very few inputs (as long as she is taken out to graze). There are various cow breeds from the plains of Punjab, for example, that also yield large amounts of milk but the buffaloes still do much better even there. They are also much better for meat as buffalo meat is closer to mutton and is therefore healthier for one’s arteries than cow-beef.
So why do Indians like cows so much? One simple reason: Indian women in most parts of the country traditionally go out to work!
In the agriculture sector for example, about 50% of rural men and nearly 80% of rural women are engaged in agriculture. Even in urban India, except for those parts of the country that were the most affected by the colonialists (and their horribly misogynistic policies), women typically go out to work. They have traditionally even gone to war with many stories about the warrior queens of India surfacing that were buried by our wannabe-Victorian historians.
How is this relevant to cows? It is relevant because children mostly depend on milk for their protein needs. And before the invention of breast-pumps, refrigerators and tetra paks, one needed to find a ready source of milk for the child when the mother was away at war or at work. This is where the cow steps in. Cow milk is much closer to human milk in terms of protein content (4 to 6% and 2% respectively). Buffalo milk in comparison has over 18% protein (which is why you need ‘bhainskadoodh’ to be a pehelwan). So, in Indian households, one traditionally bought a cow when a baby was born.
Cows are rather intelligent and trainable so the cow usually became part of the family, often playing nanny to the child (so many Indians have grown up using cows as props to lean against for a nap while the adults went about their work). The new-born calf is also treated as another baby in the family, typically tied up in a corner of the kitchen at night for protection against predators and warmth.Grown cows and bulls are useful escorts for children as who would dare kidnap a child when there is a massive bull guarding him or her.
Since the best bulls are in high demand for breeding purposes, they are a source of steady income for their owners. Young children, especially young girls, usually have a bull as a pet who goes everywhere with them. These bulls then take part in races and other contests where the winner’s owner is sure of huge monetary gains for the next year.
And what do people who can’t afford to keep their own cow, do? They go to the temple of course! Temples typically house cows whose milk is given to anyone who visits the place during puja. Temple cows are also looked after and loved by the entire community and no true Indian, of whatever religion, would ever think of harming a temple cow.
To summarise, when there are cows and bulls in the household – girls get a rich protein source for muscle and brain development, women can go out to work without worrying about nutritive food for their children, they get extremely inexpensive energy (as muscle power) for ploughing and other agricultural activities, they get transport and security, they get economic benefits and they can even ride them into war when necessary!
There is a good reason for why the Goddess Shylaputri never goes anywhere without her bull.