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IF we could take a giant brush and paint our landscape, how would we paint it? Would it have blue skies and green grass, with a cloud or two in the sky? Would it have forests and fields? Would there be birds in the trees and sheep in the fields? Perhaps a cow or two, a horse, a dog… Or should we paint sand dunes and camels herded by men with colourful turbans? Or rice fields with a pair of buffaloes yoked to a plough, and large ponds with ducks? Or better still mountains capped with snow and a line of yaks making their way through a mountain pass; their herders dressed in clothes to protect them from the biting cold…

The livestock landscapes of India are highly varied and can be painted in many different ways. Our identity in many ways is also linked with livestock – through symbols and motifs, in rituals and customs, and in our apparel and the way we decorate – be it the Harappan bull or the sacred cow. Livestock products – milk, eggs, dung and meat – are essential for worship and sacrifice. Camels, horses and cattle are boldly block printed on fabric, woven into borders, or embroidered by skilful hands. Livestock enliven our songs, myths and tales. India’s animals evoke emotions and shape our language such as the term godhuli, which so vividly describes the evening dust of cattle returning home. The note ‘Re’ in the Indian musical scale is supposed to be the sound of cattle lowing, whilst the note that ‘Gopal’ (the guardian of cattle) played on his flute, called the animals home. Our domesticated animals and animal products shape our society, our environment and our politics.

This identification with livestock is not specific to India: the Dutch identity as a dairy producing nation is enmeshed with the famous Friesian cow, and that of the Swiss to contented cows in Alpine pastures. In fact, cow bells and a welcome ‘moo’ greet one at Zurich international airport. But in India, the livestock landscape is changing rapidly with the times: milk is no longer delivered by the gwala but poured out of cartons. Eggs arrive in cartons too, and the pictures and advertisements on these cartons do not show local breeds, but more likely a caricatured version of a crossbred or exotic animal. In ‘smart’ cities, meat is no longer purchased at the local butcher on Sundays, but over a sanitized HACCP certified counter in a neon lit supermarket.

This issue of Seminar discusses some key questions surrounding livestock landscapes, and looks at what might be the new identity that modern society can forge with livestock. Provenza and Mueret in their book, The Art and Science of Shepherding talk about landscapes as being a product of human intervention. They mention that European landscapes ‘so often admired’, evolved over centuries through intense use by herdsmen who grazed their animals. In Don Watson’s, The Bush we learn how the European ideal of a pastoral life has had a vast impact on the Australian landscape. The Indian landscape is similarly influenced by years of human intervention through agriculture and livestock rearing, and continues to be influenced and shaped by human activities.

In modern India, the local animal, and the animal’s keeper, are both disappearing behind a curtain of invisibility that may soon reach a point of no return: If we lose our linkages to livestock and their keepers how far will the loss go? The loss of a landscape to sketch, paint or film; the loss of crafts and trinkets fashioned of horn and bone; the loss of characters for our stories, myths and fables; or the loss of muses for our music and folk songs. And what might be the impact of livestock’s loss on our genetic material and biodiversity?

We need to thus think carefully about the emerging landscapes that we are currently creating: Do we want animals living in multi-tiered cages and shelters of steel and concrete, with machines delivering food and pellets through carefully crafted chutes? Milking robots and milking machines replacing the gentle touch of a human hand? Behind the economic terms of ‘efficiency’ and ‘growth’ our landscapes are being drawn and redrawn in graphs and calculations, whilst overhead the oppressive cloud of climate change darkens the sky. Policies and laws can sometimes draw ugly lines, erasing certain production systems forever. Do we have to follow this route? When repainting our livestock landscape, should we not perhaps be looking beyond ‘growth’ and recognizing a broader sense of value?

If we were to travel back in time, the livestock landscape of India would look rather different. In the abundant forests of what is today known as India, buffalo and poultry were the first to be domesticated, species that have since travelled the world over. Indeed, it is believed that as far back as 326 BC, Alexander returned to Europe with buffaloes from the Indian subcontinent. From India, perhaps through Macedonia, the buffalo also managed to reach Italy to produce the world famous mozzarella cheese. Murrah buffaloes from North India also travelled into Romania and Bulgaria, influencing agriculture there. Yoghurt from buffalo milk is extremely popular in Balkan food cultures.

While buffalos and poultry travelled out from India, cattle, horses, sheep and goats travelled in from beyond the Himalaya, where it is believed they were first domesticated. They arrived along with their herders and occupied the Gangetic plains, pushing further south into the forests in search for fodder and pasture. They changed the landscape in many ways: affecting culture, bringing in new languages and foods, and creating new patterns of land use and herding practices. Battles were fought over grassland and forest, with stories, legends and myths emerging about these herders and the landscapes they occupied. Each community that came in had their own special story which was passed down from generation to generation over how they were specially entrusted with a particular animal to look after.

Amongst the waves that have moved into India over the years are the Yadavs, the Ahirs, the Jats and the Gujjars – communities that continue to rear livestock even today. Over time, the cow has come to be seen as the most important species in the Indian landscape, dominating art, culture and, most importantly, agriculture. Used for drawing the plough and the cart, every part of the cow and its products has gained tremendous importance. By pushing into the interior of the country, where grasslands meet forest, the livestock rearing communities have herded cattle, sold and delivered milk, invented fresh ways to preserve their milk and make milk based products, and have slowly integrated into the landscapes they occupied. Wars were fought for, and over, cattle and cattle raids were frequent. Hero stones from the Deccan plateau depict cattle that were lost or gained after these raids.

Debates over cattle continue even today, drawing ugly brush strokes over the landscape. The comprehensive beef ban introduced across the country in this decade, and the recent storm created by Jallikattu – a sport earlier used to select the best male cattle in Tamil Nadu – have shown that cattle continue to dominate public and political processes across the country. Famous for the Zebu or humped cattle, India’s cattle breeds are highly varied. From the majestic Kankrej, Gir and Ongole, which have travelled to other continents and are today known as the ‘Brahman’, to the tiny Vechur and Ponganur, India’s cattle have been selected and bred carefully over centuries to adapt to local conditions and meet local demands. Yet, policy in the past century has sought to wipe out these breeds claiming they are inefficient, too many and inferior milk producers.

But confining this discussion to cattle is painting a monochromatic landscape. If science and policy neglected Indian breeds of cattle, other species have suffered an even worse fate these past 100 years. The camel, pig, donkey and horse are secondary species, barely making it to policy documents or into scientific research papers. Sheep and goat fare marginally better, but duck and pigeon almost not at all. Interestingly, the last pigeon post in India only stopped functioning in 2005. Chickens are believed to have been domesticated from the wild jungle fowl Gallus gallusmurghi. The Aseel breed of poultry, known throughout the country as a ‘native’ chicken is supposed to have got its name from ‘Asli’, the genuine or ‘real’ thing. Domesticated poultry travelled the world over providing meat and eggs before returning to India in the 1960s as an ‘improved breed’ to be raised in commercial factory settings. This new improved variety laid over 200 eggs a year compared to the 45 by local backyard chickens. Commercial poultry then changed the face of poultry production completely and India became one of the largest producer of eggs in the world. And with fresh eggs and tender meat regularly on the dining table few questioned how these birds were raised. The bird flu scare was blamed on backyard poultry but fortunately the voice of reason of groups working with animal welfare ensured that sense prevailed.

If animal welfare organizations helped save backyard poultry, their role in saving the camel is still in question. In an effort to protect the camel the State of Rajasthan declared it to be the state animal in 2014, and passed The Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill, in 2015. Rather than protecting the camel and increasing its numbers, the law seems to have had the opposite effect. The Pushkar fair, an important tourist destination for viewing Indian camels, has witnessed fewer and fewer camels each year, whilst Raikas, the traditional herders of camels, are shifting out of their occupation – seeing no point in rearing an animal which cannot be sold and from which there is no income source.

The shift from the local to national to global sensitizes us to a variety of landscapes – each eliciting different viewpoints on the role of livestock in the making of our cultures and lifestyles. It also highlights the importance of not getting trapped in monochromatic choices. Hopefully this issue of Seminar will help in moving the current debates around livestock into more open-ended, and less restrictive and judgemental, viewpoints and policy choices.


* Our special thanks to Helen de Jode for editorial assistance in preparing this issue.