While we were celebrating Thai Ponggal, my nephew expressed his curiosity about the next day’s theme of Ponggal celebration. That 5 year old kid has an innate affinity with the bovine kind. Every time he spots a herd of cows or oxen grazing while traveling in car, he would go off like a shrill alarm, telling everyone in the car to see the gentle beasts doing their thing, startling everyone.
Yet, the kid is yet to see a cow up close, what more touch one. His constant lament about his trip to India is that he never got a close encounter with a cow and he had made his disappointment as evident as possible. Ironically, his great grandparents, my grandparents, were cow herders by profession. They were of the Yadava kulam, the kulam of Lord Krishna’s adopted parents.
My nephew’s salivate got me thinking. Many kids these days don’t get to enjoy kampung life. The closest they get to see cows is on TV and pictures.
Cows and us
My earliest memory with cows was back in my mother’s hometown, Sitiawan where I went to spend the school holidays when my grandparents owned livestock.
As a little girl holidaying in her grandparents’ place, I loved Lakshmi the cow and she loved me too. I’d feed her sugar cubes or rock salt with my palm open and hand outstretched and she’d lick it with her long, purple tongue. I remember it feeling ticklish and me giggling deliriously.
I learnt about cows being ruminants, that they have 5 belly compartments and that they regurgitate back the grass they eat and chew it properly at leisure later, once they are back to the barn, it being known as chewing the cud before I was taught about it in school. My grandma used to scold her kids and grandkids as cows chewing cud when they were indulging in layabout activities.
I feel truly blessed for having the experience to drink cow’s milk fresh from the udder. No amount of bottled cow’s milk, pasteurized cow’s milk or condensed milk can come close to fresh cow’s milk, still warm from the mother cow’s body temperature. Milk powder don’t even come close. The cow’s milk coffee I drank at my grandparents’ house remain the best I ever tasted, forget the varieties of latte in Starbucks. But, there’s a distinct smell to fresh cow’s milk and it is not palatable for everyone.
I truly understood why cow is likened to mother in Hinduism. Apart from cows being useful for agriculture and daily life – cows being used to till the land, cow dung and cow urine used as fertilizer, if a mother of a new born baby dies or is unable to lactate, the baby would be given cow’s milk because cow’s milk is the closest nature can get to human milk.
When Lakshmi the cow died because of child birth complications, not an eye in the house was dry. As far as we were concerned, Lakshmi was family and she became the last cow of the house which my grandpa hand raised since when she was a calf. After Lakshmi’s death, my grandparents, who had age catching up with them (having cows means having loads of work. Refer to the movie Something Something Unakkum Enukkum where Jayam Ravi works with cows) decided not to have any cows anymore.
Cow Ponggal in the village
When my grandparents were owning cows, they celebrated Cow Ponggal grandly.
The cows would be given superstar treatment on that day; they will be given a shower, their horns, painted, fragrant garlands made from marigold blossoms would be hung around their necks and lit camphor as well as billows of frankincense smoke would be shown at them. Serupa macam raja sehari.
After that, they will be fed with sweet rice and other vegetarian food and delicacies on banana leaves. After eating what’s on the ‘leafy plates’, the cows eat the ‘plates’. Well, one chore lesser for my grandparents, no need to wash plates. The cows also get the day off.
Mattu Pongal is celebrated to acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of cows to the agriculture community and its sustaining nature – milk, yogurt, buttermilk, paneer (Indian cheese), buttermilk, ghee and butter.
Rituals surrounding the cow in Hinduism
Sprinkling cow’s urine around the house is considered antibacterial and has spiritual power. My aunt does this regularly, sometimes sprinkling the komiyam on me, citing it would do me good. Since I am a person who doesn’t simply buy everything people say, I did some research on whether cow’s urine has the claimed properties. My research, backed by peer reviewed evidence stated the opposite of what my beloved aunt stated.
But, vibuthi is made from either cow dung, ash from cremation grounds or rice husks. The cow dung is so burnt that it becomes sterile. Some swear that eating vibuthi helps purify the mind. It has been known to have healing properties that affect both physical and spiritual maladies but there are no scientific facts, evidence and peer reviewed researches to back this claim. The medicinal benefit of vibuthi consumption is disputed. Personally, I sprinkle vibuthi into my mouth if I took too much of it. Well, alavukku minjinal, amirthamum nanju.
As for the significance of vibuthi besides denoting piety are:
- Serving as a reminder to the believer to cast away selfish and worldly desires that wrap the self in maya, meaning worldly illusion and distractions, and calls to mind the legend of how Shiva burned Kama (the god of desire) to ashes when Kama attempted to break Shiva’s meditation. This incident is recorded in the contents of Shiva Purana which entails the history of Shiva and his family.
- When worn along with red tilaka(red dot). Vibhuti relates to Shiva and Red tilaka to Shakti(his consort Parvati). It is a constant reminder that Shiva and Shakti form the universe and everything is into being through, the union of Shiva and Parvati.
Another ritual is to have a cow and calf urinate and defecate in a newly bought house for prosperity and goodness.
Fun Fact – Cows can climb up stairs but can’t get down stairs. My bro-in-law had a cow piss and shit in the house he and his family moved into during the house warming occasion. Moved out of the house 3 years later. Couldn’t sell the house for many years, resulting in the house becoming dilapidated. But, this is just an isolated case. You are what you believe anyway, right?
Cow dung and cow urine are excellent natural fertilizers though provided that the cows eat grass, not mass produced fodder.
My aunt drank the water from the river Ganges which has feces, corpses and animal carcasses floating in it to signify her bhakti and once home, fell very sick and had to be hospitalised. Her diagnosis was severe bacterial infection and the doctors confirmed that it was due to her drinking the adulterated river water. One Indian doctor tending to my aunt doctor was like, “Aunty, would you drink the water of Sungai Perak? No? Then it should be the same for the Ganges river. That river is polluted. The word punitha Gangai is very misleading indeed and we should use our common sense before doing something which is professed divine when it’s obvious vision is not.”
That aunt of mine is the very same aunt who sprinkles cow urine all over the house for the purposes I mentioned above.
Why am I telling this Kutty Kathai? It is because sensibility is crucial when following something that is deemed sacrosanct – we shouldn’t just blindly follow an establishment just because it has the ‘holy’ brand stamped on it.
If you want to pillory me for speaking the inconvenient truth and even blasphemous, please think about the Malaysian Indians who performed pal abhishegam on Rajini’s Lingaa cutouts.
How sacred a cow is when it comes to economy?
Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism but more than relating to cows as mothers, they are seen as economic units. In the olden days, the more cows a family has, the richer and more stately the family is.
Once a cow gets old or unproductive, very few people (here at least) would take care of the cow for the rest of its life simply because of the cost factor and the labor involved in caring for the cow without any profit from it is simply impractical and not beneficial economy wise.
Such cows are sold to adi maatu santhai and the fate of the cows is sealed; their next destination is the abattoir.
Many Malays buy cows to slaughter on Hari Raya Korban from Hindu cow owners.
There are many temples here which take care of unwanted cows, yes. When I visited Penang Thannir Malai temple, a bunch of friendly cows greeted me enthusiastically. When I stretched my hand out to pet one cow, she licked my hand and I was reminded of Lakshmi.
Cow anomaly in India
It is known to us that cows are considered sacred in India but this is not true in the whole width and breadth of India.
Culturally, many Indians eat beef and they are Hindu – Malayalam or more precisely, Kerala people commonly eat beef.
The people of northeastern states of India consume beef and pork largely compared to those Indians who live in other states of India. That’s why Northeastern Indian people are always subjected to racist harassment in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka due to cows being sacred to Hindus and pork being haram for Muslims. They are called Chinky, referring to their oriental features but they are Indian nationals.
Stuntmaster Peter Hein is a northeastern Indian and so is India’s female boxer Mary Kom.
So, I think I have elaborated enough on how a cow is perceived by Indians or rather Hindu Indians.
Gomaatha.. Enggal Kulamaata..