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The Holy Cow and the Dalit

The relationship between the bovine and an oppressed community is not a simple equation — there are many shades of gray, or in this case … red.

    • Sruthisagar Yamunan

NOVEMBER 2, 2015, 11:25 IST

~Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

~Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Poverty and famine once forced a forefather of Kaliyamurthy to steal a cow to feed his family.

When the mirasidar (land owner), to whose land Kaliyamurthy’s forefather was attached as an adimai (bonded labourer), realised that a cow was missing, the entire labour force was summoned. Word quickly spread that splatters of blood were found near the man’s hut.

“My ancestor prayed to our family deity Koppati Amman and sought her mercy. A miracle happened. When the mel jati (upper caste) landowners inspected the remains of the cow, it had changed into a deer,” says Kaliyamurthy, clad in a partially torn veti (dhoti) that has clearly seen several summers.

~Photo: G. Moorthy/The Hindu

Ever since, Kaliyamurthy’s family have been consuming beef — but they like to believe that it is actually deer that they are eating.

The legend aside, Kaliyamurthy, father to two school-going children, finds beef an indispensable part of his diet.

Situated a few miles from Thiruvaiyaru in the Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, where Carnatic composer-saint Tyagaraja once lived, this predominantly Dalit settlement of Kallakudi continues to have landless labourers as majority inhabitants.

The paddy crop sowing currently underway in this Cauvery delta region makes life a bit comfortable. There is more money in their hands than during previous months. But even the harvest season does not provide enough for the luxury of mutton.

“Today, a kilogram of mutton costs Rs 450. That is more than a day’s wage,” he says. The compulsions of poverty make beef the best substitute for the farming proletariat. Doctors too recommend it to them as a fine source of protein.

Most Dalits this writer met across three regions of Tamil Nadu considered beef their traditional, staple meat. This conforms to a national trend, where at least 65 per cent of Hindus who eat beef are from the Scheduled Castes. The 68th round of the National Sample Survey puts the beef eating population in Tamil Nadu at 5.9 per cent, again a majority likely from the Dalit and Muslim communities. The Dalits constitute about 20 per cent of the total population.

But to generalise is to tread a dangerous path. The relationship between the cow and a community that continues to be subjected to caste atrocities has many layers and is a tale in itself.

Dalit intellectuals like Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) general secretary D. Ravikumar have argued that the habit of eating beef, for long considered peculiar to Dalits, could have been the by-product of untouchability.

The seeds of this habit may have come from the inhuman custom of forcing them to remove dead cows from the upper caste settlements. As poverty ravaged those in the margins, a lifeless cow became a potential meal.

But for those tied to the land for their living, the origins and politics of the habit has little relevance. And the idea of getting killed for eating beef is a nightmare.


People waiting to pay homage at the Muthuramalinga Thevar memorial in Pasumpon in Ramanathapuram district on Friday. ~Photo: L. Balachandar

Construction workers from Bihar and Northeastern states had descended in big numbers on Pasumpon, the birthplace of Muthuramalinga Thevar in Ramanathapuram. Last week, the Thevar memorial attracted lakhs of people, including the high and mighty, for the Guru Pooja. The five-decade old event has transformed the man into a deity of sorts even as his bust at the tomb sports the golden armour presented by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

Irulandi carefully waters his cows at the malodorous shed as an overcast sky sends down the first few drizzles. The most important pilgrimage place of the numerically-strong OBC Thevar community, Pasumpon and adjoining villages also have a substantial Dalit population.

“We do consider the cow holy. It helps us in farming. But there is another reason too. By giving its life, it saves us during difficult times,” Irulandi explains, as he wipes his rheumy eyes every other minute.

Irulandi with his cows. ~Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan/The Hindu

Much of the farming in this dry Ramanathapuram district depends on the rain. A good crop, mostly peanut and paddy, is subject to the vagaries of nature. Drought here is no evanescent event. Its memories stay fresh.

And it is in drought that the cow becomes the saviour. “We sell the old cows that could no longer lactate to the butcher. A good cow can fetch us Rs 20,000; a life saver when we struggle for a day’s meal,” Irulandi says as he puts a stack of hay in front of the beasts. A cow that does not provide milk is a great burden given how costly the feed has become. If cannot be sold, it would die of starvation without benefiting anyone.

There are questions of culture and religion too. Not just bland economics.

What could be the yardstick to consider the cow holy? Are religious texts enough? Many animals help humans in their work. Many others, like the goat, help them out of starvation. But why single out the cow? And can something divine be butchered?

With sowing completed in the adjoining lands, the village’s community hall makes a perfect place for a leisurely game of cards. The heavy smoke of the beedi refuses to clear, as laughter fills the enclosure.

All through their lives, the cow finds a place in one ritual alone. “When we build a new house, it is mandatory to bring the cow and make it urinate inside. We believe this cleanses the place and brings prosperity as cow is Lakshmi,” remarks Santhanam, who belongs to the Pallar community.

Their village deity though is Kali. Unlike the benign Lakshmi, Kali, with her garland of skulls and wielding blood-soaked weapons in hand, accepts sacrifices — goats, chickens and pigs. There has never been a custom of worshipping Lakshmi in the village. But this changed when the Brahmins finally began entering the “colony”.

For long, the Dalit community was condemned as untouchables. Their very sight made the “others” tainted. A bath, and incantations, became necessary to wash the impurities off.

But now, priests with their bare chests and the sacred threads enter Dalit settlements without qualms. Untouchabilty is suspended during business hours, though it is revived with vengeance whenever needed. Not long ago, a panchama, as Dalits were deemed, had no right to the benefits of “sacred” rituals. Today, a temporary poonool is hung across his shoulders as the Brahmin receives the oblation in cash. Religion becomes a commercial service in this transaction with rules of engagement altered at will.

Azhagan, the 29-year-old van driver, recollects a homam conducted in the village by Brahmin priests only a few months ago. “They told us to treat the cows better and worship it every Friday for wealth,” he says. An unfamiliar god has now become familiar.

For some like Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah, the irony here would be glaring. Time and again, he has concluded that everyone, including Brahmins, were once beefeaters. According to an interview he gave to in March this year, Ilaiah says the advent of the Buddha and his take on Brahminical rituals changed this culinary habit. The Dalits, who stalwarts like Iyothee Thaas considered being the original Buddhists, refrained from sacrifices that had the cow killed. They only consumed beef when absolutely necessary, like in times of famine. Ilaiah postulates that the period of Hindu/Shaivaite revivalism heralded by Sankaracharya converted the Brahmins into vegetarians. The tables were turned. The beef-eating Dalits/Buddhists were suddenly transformed into people of violence. This helped segregate them.


A few kilometers from Ramanathapuram town, the “urbanised” Meenakshipuram and K.K. Nagar have mostly concrete houses.

The village worships Sonaiyan, a rural deity who protects the village from evil. The Sonaiyan here is unique. He limps. The broken right leg bears testimony to his courage, when centuries ago he stood up against caste oppressors and was punished for his valour. So says the local legend. He likes his beef, offered during the temple festival in the Tamil month of Masi.

“What audacity you have to come here and ask about beef? Why do you ask this question only to Dalits?,” a visibly upset Senthil*, who belonged to the Devendra Kula Velalar community, snapped. The sub-group of Dalits consider themselves as descendants of god Indra. Their association with Hindu mythology has not gone unnoticed. The BJP and RSS have begun wooing them.

Raised in abject poverty, his gritty mother ensured he finished his schooling. A government job as a record clerk provided exposure to a completely new space, where people from different cultures (castes) worked under one roof.

Senthil gave up beef some time after he began working. The probing eyes of his colleagues when his steel tiffin box containing beef and rice was opened embarrassed him. He has seen those eyes before — a piercing look of condemnation.

“We have grown out of those insults. We no longer prefer beef. Our forefathers did eat it. But we have evolved and want to leave those habits behind. So do not associate us with beef,” he asserts, as his young daughter-in-law nods in approval. Now retired, Senthil recalls how eating the meat identified his caste background even to those who had no access to his records. He wanted to be a new man without the agonising burden of history.

But the market near the bus stand a few kilometres away exposes the changing trend. Evening stalls sell more beef items today than chicken. These pushcarts named Barkat, a word that signifies abundance, fill the vicinity with aroma of the deep-red masala sautéing with the meat. Caste barriers crumble in the crowd. The oppressed and the oppressor mingle as they relish the delicacy. Discrimination can wait it out for a while.


What does it mean when a person is killed for eating the same food you consume thrice a week? Is it an act of shaming for being ‘different’ from the majority? Or is the ‘majority’ itself a fictitious construct, given how prevalent beef eating has become?

“Let the RSS tell us if we will be treated like a high caste if we give up beef. Will centuries of insults get washed away if we stop eating beef?”

Tamil Maran read the news about the Dadri lynching few days ago. It is strange how the dead cow continues to haunt the community.

“When the cow was alive and was “divine”, they never let us touch it. When it died, we had to remove it. For centuries, our association was only with a dead cow. There is nothing holy in death, whether it is of humans or animals,” he says, recollecting the days when his grandfather played the parai during funerals. For Maran, the very articulation of their woes becomes a sort of catharsis. What more could the poor do but speak out and release emotions in the form of words?

But not all accept his view in this village of Pillur in Villupuram. Parthiban* was without a child for long. On the advice of a friend, he decided to take the pilgrimage to Sabarimala.

The clash of two different cultures is again evident. The local deity Veerappan relishes meat. His space has now been intruded by a visitor. “Blessed” with a child, Parthiban decided to build a temple for Ayyappan right next to where Veerappan stands — sickle in hand and bloodshot eyes wide open. Ayyappan is orthodox. Women who’ve attained puberty still cannot enter his temple in Kerala. Veerappan does not mind a woman priest. With orthodoxy comes vegetarianism, something a few families, devotees of Ayyappan, in the village have already taken to. Can Veerappan and Ayyappan coexist in the same enclosure?

* – Names changed on request

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