The plight of the ‘Sacred Cow’ in India

Posted on April 8, 2019

End Animal Slaughter’s Sandra Kyle recently visited India to receive  the Phillip Wollen Animal Welfare Award.  The Award was presented by the Haryana-based Teachers’ Association for Animal Rights, and was given to her by prominent Animal Rights activist Meneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Children in the Narendra Modi government.

During her two weeks’ stay Sandra  was struck by the numbers of cows wandering the streets of towns and cities.  Read her take on the problem of ‘The Sacred Cow’ in India.   

The cow in India has long had a unique status.   Known by such names   as “Mother”, “Kamdhenu”, “Surabhi”, ‘The Sacred Cow Who Fulfils All Desires’, she is depicted in iconography as a white cow with a female head and breasts, the wings of a bird, and the tail of a peacock.   However while there are temples devoted to Hanuman (Monkey God) and Ganesha (Elephant God), cows are not generally worshipped independently as a goddess, but honoured by protecting and venerating the living animal.  While this may sound very cosy  for the cow, all is not as it seems.  In my opinion there is not one happy street cow in India.

Traditionally, spent cows who could no longer give milk have been sent to slaughter, which was carried out by minority non-Hindus.  Recent  legislation preventing slaughter means  that  owners who cannot afford to keep their animals  release them onto the streets to fend for themselves.  This is creating a dire situation for the cows, as well as posing traffic risks on India’s already chaotic roads.  It also highlights the pressing and persistent problem of waste disposal in this country.

Every year, tens of thousands of cows are killed in accidents in India. They are often seen walking across roads in the middle of the traffic, or standing on traffic islands.   Generally they gather near the ubiquitous rubbish piles, where they root around for enough food to keep them from starving.   While I saw many skinny cows and calves, I also some who looked quite bloated.    I didn’t understand the cause of their large  stomachs until I visited a cow hospital in Haryana, and witnessed an operation. 

The hospital I visited is the Gau Seva Dham (Holy Mother Cow Hospital). The spiritual leader is Devi Chitralekhaji a young woman in her early twenties. Her biography states that she was born in a nearby village and her life’s purpose took root at the age of seven, when she was initiated by a ‘great Saint’. The little girl began devoting her seva (service) to the Holy Mother Cow and, a few years ago, with donations from her followers, she opened the Gau Seva Dham.

The Manager of the Centre escorted our party around the facility. Like any hospital there are ‘wards’, sectioned off portions of a large open sided area, covered with soft sand to make the patients more comfortable. There is an Intensive Care ward, a Cancer ward, a Burns ward, an Orthopedic ward. We saw some remarkable and upsetting sights at this hospital.   A number of cows in the Intensive Care ward were dying, including one so emaciated and weak that she could not raise her head.  In this ward I also saw one of the most pitiful sights I have seen. A cow had unsuccessfully tried to birth a stillborn calf, visible in the birth sac, halfway out of his mother’s vagina. There was nothing the staff could do for this poor girl other than administer pain relief, and wait until she was released from her suffering.  In the Burns ward I saw two cows with pink wrinkly skin, who were recovering from having acid thrown on them.   Cows with visible tumours, some gigantic, were being treated in the cancer ward, while in the orthopaedic ward a small calf who had had his leg amputated as a result of a traffic accident was learning to move around on three legs.  Before long, I was told, he would be fitted with an artificial leg by the Prosthetics team.

Another memorable sight was a cow undergoing an operation carried out by a team of veterinarians and attendants.  Standing in a restraining device, this girl was fully conscious, having been given local anaesthetic prior to having the contents of her stomach emptied, a procedure that can last up to four hours.  Near the operating table was a large bucket where the surgeons were placing the rubbish they pulled from her stomach.  I watched in amazement as tangled string, bits of cardboard, and especially, plastic bags containing rotting food were pulled from her rumen and placed in the container.  Plastic is particularly deadly for cows, who cannot digest or expel it from their system, and as a result the toxic plastic accumulates inside their stomachs, eventually leading to a slow and painful death.  The cow I saw operated on was one of the lucky ones; but this is an expensive and lengthy procedure, and is not the answer to the problem.   The long term  answer is an outright ban on plastic bags, and more regulation regarding the disposal of rubbish in India.    Feeding and watering stations for cattle away from traffic is another option that could be explored.

The cow may be sacred in Hinduism, but the living, breathing animal is far from venerated.   Once they have fulfilled their purpose they are let loose to lead difficult, dangerous lives, largely ignored or tolerated  but sometimes abused by the population.   And there is another shocking aspect to the misery of the sacred cow in this country, and that is how they are abused in the  production of leather, which I will cover in a follow-up story.


  • Debbie Nelson says:

    I suspected this was the case. Sorry I was right. How sad! Is there something we can do?

    • Hi Debbie
      I am writing ongoingly for a magazine in India as a result of my trip. I have just done one article on cows and dogs (from a visitor to India’s perspective) and I will keep writing on the topic. I am also in touch with a Government Minister (Meneka Gandhi) who is also an Animal Rights activist. Ultimately both lawsd and attitudes need to be changed, and corruption less widespread for anything really to be done about it.

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