All around the world people love to feed animals for the sheer joy
of it. But in India the reason why people feed animals goes beyond
joy to something more intangible. Something that is very intrinsic
to India culture.
.come) the man called out aloud.
Recognizing the call, the meandering cows converged for the fresh
green feed tied to his bicycle. As he fed the cows, an elderly
couple arrived to buy their bundle from a man who was selling the
green fodder heaped high on the pavement. In the early morning, the
empty street presented an organized scene of people turning up to
feed a random herd of approximately 60 stray cows.
The cow is just one of
the many animals that are fed by the people in what is a living
tradition in India. Indians also feed a whole range of other animals
like the monkey, the elephant, the bull, the rat, a variety of birds,
fish turtles and yes, even ants. And these are not all. There are
yet other animals that are fed by the people, routinely or on festive
Ask anybody and the first
response would be, It is matter of dharma (piety). It
isnt hard to see why, considering the cow has almost a divine
status in Indian scriptures and many other animals like the black
faced monkey, elephant, cobra, rat and peacock find themselves in
divine company. In some cases the animals also come to symbolize the
deity itself. Intertwined with religion and mythology is a vast
folklore of diverse Indian castes and tribes. So whether it is the
cow or cobra, crow or crocodile, there are different reasons and
perspectives for feeding the animals. However, there is one
predominant sentiment of daan and punya or simply, charity and
virtue. Believe as Indians do, in life after death, the central idea
behind feeding animals is an aspiration for a better station in the
So indeed, it is a moral
duty to feed and look after the cow which is not only closely
connected to Krishna, one of the principal gods in Hindu mythology,
but also because it is understood as Kamadhenu, the wish
fulfilling mythical mother. Roving bands of black faced money,
better known as langur, are fed by devotees of Hanuman, the monkey
faced god in the Indian epic Ramayana. This denizen of the wilds has
taken well to the growing urbanization in India primarily because
public sentiment never allows it to be molested. On the contrary,
the monkeys are usually fed before being shooed away. It is quite
a sight to see the reverent with their children feed peanuts, bananas
and other fruits to this fascinating primate.
The elephant too finds
religious sanction primarily because of its association with Ganesh,
the elephant headed god of Hindu pantheon. It is in the south Indian
states that the elephant is the most venerable animal. Almost all
the important temples there have a few elephants of their own and
those that do not have them, hire them for festive occasions.
Devotees visiting the temple pause to feed the elephants with
choicest bananas and even payasam or sweet rice pudding.
Milk is offered to the
cobra, the poisonous hooded serpent which is shown wrapped around the
neck of Lord Shiva one of the Hindu Holy Trinity. Symbolic of
various things like time, death, fertility, rebirth and creative
energy, the deadly cobra is generally held to be to be a guardian,
providing divine protection under its spreading hood. In fact,
during the annual festival of Nagpanchami the cobra is actually
worshipped by the people. Therefore it is not surprising that people
that people do not endorse hurting or killing the cobra when
encountered with. It is either caught by the snake charmer and taken
away or milk is kept out in a bowl to appease the serpent.
Surely a rat is a pest
anywhere in the world, best exterminated. Not quite so in one corner
of India where thousands inhabit the unique temple of a folk goddess
called Karni Mata, near Bikaner in Rajansthan. Patronized by a
traditional caste of bards called Charans, the local legend tells a
tale where the rats within the temple are tied by the cycle of life,
death and rebirth, to the Charans.
It is believed that when
the Charans die, they are reborn as rats, known as Kabas, within the
temple. Conversely, the dead Kabas take rebirth as Charans !
Hundreds of followers throng the temple each day to pay obeisance to
Karni Mata and feed the scampering rats with sweets, coconut and
Like the Charans, the
Bishnoi from western Rajasthan are another caste of people that are
known to feed the blackbuck that roams wild in the surrounding
desert. In the hot summer months of May and June when foraging is
scant in the desert, large herds of blackbuck flock to Bishnoi
hamlets where feeding the animals is a community commitment. This
beautiful antelope which is persecuted for its meat by almost all
other desert bound communities, had a special place in the belief
system of the Bishnoi that peraches principles of conservation.
One tradition that is
found across the length and breath of India is that of feeding patch
where it is an organized affair with grain sellers offering different
types of feeds. In the cities pigeons predominate but in the rural
areas, a whole lot of other birds are also attracted to feed. In
the Bishnoi village of Khejarli, I counted 13 species of birds
including doves, mynahs, munias, parrots, partridges and of course,
peacocks a sacred
bird protected not only
by a religious sentiment but also by parliamentary statute since it
is the national bird of India.
Although the lowly crow
has no such exalted status, it is nevertheless a very special bird in
India that is fed all over the country for a variety of different
reasons. But chiefly, the crow is identified with the remembrance of
ancestors or shraadha a period of time that comes each
year when people recall their departed relatives and offer them food
by feeding this winged scavenger. Evocative of ancestors, the crows
are routinely fed in the Hindu burning grounds where the dead are
taken to their fuineral pyres.
Special mention must be
made of the sacred kites that are fed every day at noon on top of the
hill called Tirukkalukundram, near Chennai. It is said that the
kites are actually saints who feed and rest here a while on their
daily flight between the holy cities of Varanasi and Rameshwaram. A
big crowd of pilgrims gather each day of watch the scene as a priest
feeds the kites in a tradition believed to have seen in practice
since times immemorial.
That is precisely why the
people feed the fish in places of pilgrimage like Rishikesh in the
Himalayan foothills, Anantnag in Kashmir or Pushkar in Rajasthan. Be
it is temple water tank, a sacred lake or a holy river, one is bound
to find the faithful who come to feed the fish or even turtles as a
simple matter of piety. But talking to people sometimes elicits
typically personal answers.
A young man once told me
that he fed sugar coated chickpeas to the fish on the advice of his
astrologer who had recommended this as a remedial measure to counter
a mishap he had predicted in the young mans future. There are
other personal reasons for individuals who feed animals and birds
like wild crocodiles and pariah eagles.
Feeding the street dog,
however, is a more socially acceptable tradition since it recognizes
the yeoman service the canine provides in keeping the neighbourhood
watch. There are quite a few places in India, where devoted
individuals have organized feeding of stray dogs on a daily basis.
What is amazing is that even the tiny insect world of ants is a
recipient of this unique Indian ethos. I asked an old woman why she
was sprinkling flour over the ant colony.
She startled me by
replying, To you they are ants. But to me they are all people.
They are awaiting their turn to be reborn a human. I
immediately understood what she meant. In the Hindu conception of
the human lifecycle, between death and rebirth, a person passes
through what is called chaurasi lakh yonis (eight million,
four hundred thousand
different births) before
being born a human again. As a human in this lifetime, this is
the least I can do for my fellow beings the old woman added.
She had touched a chord,
sensitive in every Indian heart. Deep down somewhere, it is perhaps
this feeling that keeps alive in India the ancient tradition of