India – Animal Encounters: Cows


What comes to mind when you think of India? Illustrious temples perhaps? Vivid desert sunsets? Or maybe mobbed trains? Whilst you’d be accurate in thinking of these things, any extended period of travel there will make you realise that there there is only one thing that will really shape your experience: the animals.

The vast majority of stories from my six months in India stem back to its creatures. From getting chased by rabid dogs down a dark country road on a decrepit bicycle to having monkeys steal food from my room on three separate occasions, the animals really kept things, shall we say, interesting.

I thought I’d work on a little series of posts dedicating some attention to these special critters. In this post I’m going to reflect on perhaps India’s most significant animal – the cow.

In India cows are the most revered animal. Considered holy by Hindus, it is absolutely forbidden to harm them and as such they are given free roam of the streets. There are now so many cows in India that even if they did decide its a problem, they would probably have a bit of an issue getting rid of them – they are literally everywhere. Milling around in the crowded city streets, blocking off narrow mountain roads and perching themselves on train tracks.

During my trip I had many an encounter with these docile lumps, and while the majority of them were actually quite disturbing at the time, they gain more comedy value as they age.

A holy shower

A short walk to get breakfast in Varanasi always proved eventful. The narrow alleyways that formed the main streets of the Old City were bursting with life. The smell of India was pungent – a mixed aroma of spices, incense, trash and excrement. It sounds like a living hell, but it was my favourite place in India. Once you step out of your room, it is usually a matter of minutes before some bizarre event grabs your attention.

On one particular day, I laid eyes on a very bizarre event indeed. I was meandering my way down the street, dodging animals, salesmen and motorbikes as usual, when I spotted a rather large blockage ahead. A cow had stopped in the middle of the street to pee, which of course isn’t unusual. But what was unusual was the three men taking turns to shower their heads underneath it.

There was gathering of people around this spectacle, and as I absorbed the image, I wondered if I was actually still asleep in my guest house and this was all a dream.

I know cows are holy in India and Varanasi is the holiest city in India, so my guess is that in actual fact what I first thought was some revolting idea of refreshment was actually the holiest shower in India – shame about the smell.

Woops, hope no one saw…

I’d bet that if you spoke to most of the people who have travelled anywhere in Asia, a day out with their new friends on scooters they hired for next to nothing will probably be somewhere near the top of their list of best experiences. Well it was one of those days.

I was out amongst the colossal hills of Rishikesh in northern India with a group of friends, exploring the beautiful landscape and hauling our hired scooters up precarious one-way roads.

We had discovered a deserted beach next to the River Ganges, complete with glittery sand, and after spending some time here lounging and swimming, our spirits were boosted and everyone seemed confident about the way home. Too confident.

As over ten of us merrily sped along the roads as if we had any scooter experience combined, there was a sudden ‘mooooo’ and a screech behind me. It chanced a glance behind me and saw my friend Claire had somehow ridden into a cow. The initial horror was replaced by hysterical laughter as the cow got itself to its feet and trundled off the road, clearly unscathed by the knock. Claire however, received a massive blow to her scooter driving confidence – luckily she had only learnt to drive it the day before so it wasn’t such a big loss.

As I mentioned, violence against cows is forbidden in India and had she have been seen doing this, there might have been some undesirable consequences. Moral of the story? If you fail to notice a cow before you hit it, or lack the driving skills to dodge it, make sure there are no Indians around.

A painful tangle

So we’re in Varanasi again, and I’m meandering around the narrow streets again. But this time I’m with my two friends Tom and Joe. We were taking a sluggish stroll back to our guest house after a big lunch and even the crazed blur of life in the streets wasn’t enough to rouse us from our haze.

We took a quieter route down even narrower alleyways to avoid noise and congestion, only to once again run into a blockage, this time in the form of a huge bull. Tom and Joe get past him but as I go to sneak behind them, it turned out he was less than impressed with this invasion of his space. He swung his head round, slamming his horn into my backside. Luckily it was in the cheek and not the nearby more vulnerable areas, or I might not have lived to tell the tale. But it still hurt.

I recoiled in shock and then I realised the ordeal was not over. The bull had somehow hooked his horn to my bag strap and I was now tussling with an angry bull. As my two friends stood back and laughed, I struggled with this huge animal until my strap was eventually free of his horn. The cow seemed completely unphased and nonchalantly returned to standing around in everyone’s way.

Moo-ve out the way !


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