In this archive story by Kristian Bertel, we take a look at the Holy cows of India and their meaning in the Indian society.
Read the background story of this archive photo by the photographer.
In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full earthly life. In the religion of Hinduism, the cow is thought to be sacred or deeply respected. Hindus do not worship cows, although they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with the cow's agricultural uses and gentle nature. The photographer took this photo of a holy cow in Pushkar in Rajasthan, India.
In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full earthly life. In the religion of Hinduism, the cow is thought to be sacred or deeply respected. Hindus do not worship cows, although they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with the cow's agricultural uses and gentle nature. The photographer took this photo of a holy cow in Pushkar in Rajasthan, India.
Kristian Bertel, Photographer By Kristian Bertel, Photographer
– Updated on October 30, 2023

Holy cows of India

Hindus rely heavily on cows for dairy products, for tilling fields and for dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. So, the cow is seen as a 'Caretaker' or maternal figure. One Hindu goddess named 'Bhoomi' is usually shown in the form of a cow. She represents the Earth. Most Hindus respect the cow for her gentle nature which represents the main teaching of Hinduism, non-injury 'Ahimsa'. The cow also represents butter 'Ghee' and strength.

Is cow God in India?

No. Hindus do not consider the cow to be a god and they do not worship it. Hindus, however, are vegetarians and they consider the cow to be a sacred symbol of life that should be protected and revered.

Hindu symbol of the Earth
The cow is very honored in society and Hindus do not eat beef, cow meat, however beef consumption is widely prevalent amongst Hindus in the larger Indian subcontinent, for instance Tamil Hindus in Malaysia. In the Indian state of Maharashtra, it is illegal to eat or possess cow meat. In the olden days cattle being limited to select few fortunate folks, the cows enjoyed the status that gold or money enjoys today. Since ancient Vedic times, the Hindus revere and respect cows. Reverence for cows can be found in all of the religion's major texts. However, there are also references to other animals such as fish, tortoise, deer and explicit mention of not eating cow meat is not mentioned in any of the Hindu texts. So it is unclear why Hindus eat fish, deer and other animals mentioned in the texts but do not eat cows.

The cow gives milk and cream, yogurt and cheese, butter and ice cream and 'Ghee'. The milk of a cow is believed to refine a person. The 'Ghee' which is clarified butter from the milk is used in ceremonies and in preparing religious food. Cow dung is used as fertilizer, as a fuel and as a disinfectant in homes. To the Hindu, the cow represents all other creatures. Hindus believe that all living creatures are sacred, mammals, fishes, birds. The cow is more, a symbol of the Earth. It always gives and feeds, representing life and the support of life. Honoring the cow inspires in people the virtues of gentleness and connects them with nature. The cow takes nothing but water, grass and grain, while it gives of its milk, as does the liberated soul give of his spiritual knowledge.

Milk is offered back
A significant portion of this milk is offered back as offering to shivalingams and other Hindu rituals and are not consumed as dietary food. In the Hindu tradition, the cow is honored, garlanded and given special feedings at festivals all over India, most importantly the annual 'Gopashtama festival'. Its nature is represented in 'Kamadhenu', the divine, wish-fulfilling cow.

In India, more than 3,000 institutions called 'Gaushalas' care for old and infirm cows. The gift of a cow is applauded as the highest kind of gift. According to animal husbandry statistics there are about 45,150,000 cows in India, the highest in the world. So while some old and infirm cows are treated in 'Gaushalas', the rest are generally abandoned at public places such as railway stations and bazaars where they can find food at garbage bins and dumpsters.

The cow is a holy animal
It is becoming a routine ritual on the crowded, colorful streets of India. A small team of men surrounds a wandering cow, attempting to coax it on to a waiting truck for a trip to a suburban reserve. But the cow catchers need to be careful. To India's millions of Hindus, the cow is a holy animal that cannot be harmed. The tender treatment is just one example of our complicated relationship with cows. From a source of meat and milk to a provider of labor and religious inspiration, Cows often play a central role in modern life. Few people, however, revere the cow like the world's 900 million adherents of Hinduism. Since the faith first evolved near Asia's Indus River more than 3,000 years ago, respect for animal life has been a central theme in Hindu life. While many scholars say early Hindus ate beef, most ultimately came to see the cow as a sacred animal to be esteemed, not eaten.

"- If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection", Mahatma Gandhi, India's legendary nonviolent leader, once wrote.

Although Hindus follow no single set of rules, reverence for cows can be found throughout the religion's major texts. Some trace the cow's sacred status back to Lord Krishna, one of the faith's most important figures. He is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago as a cowherd, and is often described as 'Bala-gopala', the 'Child who protects the cows'. Another of Krishna's holy names, 'Govinda', means 'One who brings satisfaction to the cows'. Other scriptures identify the cow as the 'Mother' of all civilization, its milk nurturing the population.

"Today, in heavily Hindu nations like India and Nepal, milk continues to hold a central place in religious rituals. And in honor of their exalted status, cows often roam free. Indeed, in some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack, a bit of bread, or fruit before breakfast. On the other hand, a citizen can be sent to jail for killing or injuring a cow"

40,000 cows in Delhi, India
But as cities have grown more crowded, cow-friendly policies have posed problems. Delhi's 13 million residents, for instance, share the streets with an estimated 40,000 cows leading to some complaints. One is that the grazing cows spread trash as they rip open garbage bags in search of tasty morsels. Another is that they dangerously snarl traffic. And as a traveler in India you can ask yourself w
hat is the greatest traffic hazard in India today and that may be the cows. And as our national animal, the tiger may be close to extinction, the cow is very much around and many soon become India's new national animal.

To solve the problem, Debroy offered one tongue-in-cheek solution. That the cows should have reflectors and, if not license plates, at least identity cards. Only genuine Delhi cows should be eligible for social security and other benefits. City officials, meanwhile, have adopted a different approach, the cow catchers. Under pressure to reduce cow populations, Delhi has hired nearly 100 of the urban cowboys, who are charged with catching and shipping cows outside the city limits, sometimes to special reserves where the animals are cared for.

"- But the work is not easy and it can be downright dangerous. The cows often sport sharp horns, as I experienced as a photographer in Jaisalmer and life on the street has made them savvy and sometimes ornery", the Photographer says.

Read also:  Hindu temples of India

Read also:  Hindu temples of India

More archive stories

India is a land full of stories. On every street, on every corner and in the many places in India, life is rushing by you as a photographer with millions of stories to be told. In the archive story above, you hopefully had a readable insight in the story that was behind the photo of a holy cow in Pushkar. On this website of Kristian Bertel | Photography you can find numerous travel pictures from the photographer. Stories and moments that tell the travel stories of how the photographer captured the specific scene that you see in the picture. The photographer's images have a story behind them, images that all are taken from around India throughout his photo journeys. The archive stories delve into Kristian's personal archive to reveal never-before-seen, including portraits and landscapes beautifully produced snapshots from various travel assignments. The archive is so-far organized into photo stories, this one included, each brought to life by narrative text and full-color photos. Together, these fascinating stories tell a story about the life in India. India, the motherland to many people around the world, a land of unforgetable travel moments. The archive takes viewers on a spectacular visual journey through some of the most stunning photographs to be found in the photographer's archive collection. The photographer culled the images to reflect the many variations on the universal theme of beauty and everyday life in India. By adding these back stories the photographer's work might immensely enhanced the understanding of the photographs.