The rural farming community of Rohtak in the Indian state of Haryana snoozes quietly for most of the year. Last Saturday, however, the streets of this unassuming country town came alive with a parade of natural beauties – naturally beautiful cows that is – for the town’s first cow beauty pageant.
Held in the grounds of the International Institute of Veterinary Education and Research, the beauty contest attracted hundred of farmers, each displaying the pride of their herds. After some careful grooming and horn-polishing, more than 600 prize cows and bulls were dressed in elegant head-dresses and ornamental reins and marched in front of enthusiastic crowds. Eighteen particularly comely ungulates were selected for winners’ rosettes and sashes, with cash prizes for the owners.
Cows hold a unique position in Indian society, revered by millions of Hindus as the embodiment on earth of fertility, dutiful love and maternal instinct. The Hindu god Shiva, the most revered Indian deity, is almost universally depicted with Nandi – the humped Indian Brahma bull, or zebu, who serves as his spiritual vehicle, gate-keeper and most devoted disciple.
As well as being sacred, cows are loved as the source of the milk products used in almost every Indian dish, from curries to desserts. In 2014, India overtook the European Union as the world’s largest milk producer. The slaughter of cattle is only permitted in India under strict conditions, and a number of Indian states have recently introduced laws completely banning the possession or consumption of beef.
This move from religious code to government statute has caused some tensions in India, with critics claiming the laws discriminate unfairly against followers of Islam, which has no proscription on the consumption of beef. However, even in Muslim communities, cows are treated with great respect as providers of milk and dung for cooking and heating fires, essential ingredients of life in this dairy-obsessed corner of Asia.