Sightings of the Sacred
Cattle in Uganda, Madagascar and India
Daniel Naudé
According to, there are 971,482,000 cows in the world. This international inventory shows almost a third of them living in India - - - more than three hundred million - - - followed by Brazil with two hundred ninety million, and China with almost one hundred million. America is fourth, with ninety-two million.

One can be a bit staggered when we contemplate the world cow count, especially when we think of their eventual exudate: almost a billion of these hamburgers-on-the-hoof, as it were, overflowing with meat, milk, moos, and what we used to call back on the farm "cow-flop."

At one time, it was thought that the flatulence of cows was a significant contributor to world greenhouse gasses, and it was suggested that the United Nations impose a proposed "flatulence tax" on those countries which sported an excess of bovines. However, after some study, the New Scientist reported that the incidence of such ecological problem was not a matter of cattle poot, but rather excessive burping. This was first reported in 2003, by Gary Polakovic of the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled "Bovine belching called udderly serious gas problem - - - Global warming concerns spur effort to cut methane." As far as we know, that is where things stand now: nothing to fear from the mistrals from abaft, a greater concern with the gusty ventrals.

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For some reason, beef-eaters abound in Hong Kong. They chow down on over 123 pounds per capita per year. Argentina comes in second and Uruguay third. Although Americans consume over eleven million pounds a year, we are eating a paltry 50 pounds per head (people heads, not cow heads). The Congo, being poor and without any McDonald's franchises to speak of, is rated lowest in beef consumption in the world at three-quarters of a pound per person.

According to theFiscaltimes, your average steer, after being stripped of bones, horns, feet, tongue, eyeballs and assorted baggies (filled with milk and "mountain oysters"), represents almost 700 pounds of meat. McDonald's is definitely part of the problem. It feeds "68 million people per day, about 1 percent of the world's population." For Americans alone, the company grinds up and fries over 1,000,000,000 pounds of beef annually.

Because it provides milk, dali (yogurt), and cheese, a bovine is considered to be sacred in both India and Nepal, and is allowed to roam freely in the streets. Since your typical Bossy can weigh up to 2,400 pounds, their presence can present sizeable traffic problems, especially because in the cities in those countries the cow has right-of-way over cars, carts, motorbikes, bicycles and people. In Delhi, for example, there are special traffic lights for cows. Because the local word for cow is "go," most of the time these stop-lights are continuously green which fuddles up traffic to a fare-thee-well.

There are reserved parking areas for agéd bovines, including handicapped parking for the very old and the very gray. Nepal also has special parking meters that can be fed dahi (yogurt), ghee, or butter. A pint of milk is said to be good for an hour's free parking, and a full liter of blackberry yogurt will earn you 24 hours anywhere in Katmandú.

Krishna was known as Govinda, which means "the keeper of cows." He is often represented as a very blue god, which may be ascribed to his extensive use of the medicine called panchagavya, a mixture of the five main products of the cow: milk, curds, ghee, urine, and dung.

In Hinduism, the killing of cows is a sin, and one of the tenets of the religion is that if one murders a cow, one has to return to the earth as the self-same animal. Which may mean that the next McDonald burger you eat may be your Uncle Ferd who worked for so many years in the local butcher shop. Speaking of McDonald's, they have managed to sneak into India by changing their main product to something called the Aloo Tikki Burger, a cutlet of mashed potatoes and peas, flavoured with assorted (hot) Indian spices.

Daniel Naudé is very fond of cows, and is able, oddly enough, to transfer this passion to the reader. In this elegant book, he starts out by saying he has learned to be able to meditate merely by observing cows. He writes that "the effect is similar to the feeling of serenity brought about by gazing at the waves of the ocean."

He is especially drawn to the Ankole cattle of Uganda, which he finds "particularly beautiful and outlandish." The have huge horns [see Figs 1-5] which are "too heavy and unwieldy for effective defense or predatory assertion."

    To photograph them was to possess and preserve their beauty, perhaps a response to their apparent need for human ownership.

In the wild, they were being hunted, their horns collected as trophies, "to decorate the mansions of the European aristocracy."

Another reason for their rarity is that they are being cross-bred with the Holsteins (for reason of weight and milk production) which means that they are being literally bred to death: crossbreeding can lead to de facto extinction. The same is true in their being crossed with the common African buffalo. "In Rwanda the cattle of the kings - - - the Watusi Longhorn - - - is already extinct."

Naudé also found the Zebu in Madagascar, being another longhorn . . . with a vengeance. These cattle represent capital for the farmers, as well as being used for pulling "ancient plows and carts or wagons that still run on wooden wheels." The author takes note of their "quiet patience," in which

    they carry their forbearance without sacrificing the dignity of their Ankole brothers and sisters . . .

They are also considered to be supernatural. The Zebu has the power to carry the newly dead on their final spiritual journeys, and their burial grounds are off-limits to tourists.

The author's last journey here was to India, where, as we have pointed out earlier, "many Hindus venerate cattle as earthly manifestations of divinity."

    People create representations of animals as earthly incarnations of their gods, and the bull and cow are core characters in this rich theatre of spirituality, chief among them Nandi the Bull, the protector of Shiva's celestial dwelling.

Naudé senses in these cattle something of a "conscious awareness . . . a singular moment in which my presence and that of the animal merge." This is in many ways reflective of the times when others of us who favor dogs or cats have found an uncanny resonance with what some others would see as merely a "dumb animal." As Naudé writes, the moment of such resonance between us and one of these creatures

    is not stage managed; the process does not entail any control over the animal's stance, as would be customary in human portraiture. The animal's bearing cannot be arranged or controlled. It does not pose; there is no pretense or acting, no affectation.

His fondness for his subjects is amply shown in this collection of one hundred color photographs, including statuary, sacred trees, holy men, and dozens of portraits of bovines with their regal horns, all from the three countries that hold them in such high regard.

"To my mind," the author concludes, "it is this liminal realm that shapes the connections between animal, land, and myself, so that when I photograph them I can recognize an animal's individuality . . . "

--- C. A. Amantea
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