The big news locally is the campaign to save a benign but endangered miniature species found only in northern Kerala, the Kasaragod dwarf. Usually dark-skinned or even black, this aboriginal little creature is very friendly, generally undemanding and can survive happily on kitchen scraps and jungle forage.
Those in the know are confident the dwarf could actually help deal with the growing problems facing agrarian communities in the coming years and play a vital role in the sustainable redevelopment of the countryside. Perfectly proportioned though diminutive, both sexes usually reach a height of not much more than 70 cms. Fearing that the modern world will brush our vertically challenged companions aside, their advocates are lobbying to secure them place in the Guinness Book of Records, as we speak. At a recent festival held in their honour in Perla, a town in Kasaragod district about seventy kilometres from Neeleshwar Hermitage, dozens of the dwarves assembled in a crowd that made this Western visitor feel he had stumbled into a scene from Gulliver’s Travels. The focus of the festival was an ancient ritual called the Thulabharam, in which a person sits on one side of a huge pair of scales and has their weight balanced by anything considered valuable. These days this is usually food – typically grain, cereals, honey, bananas, jaggery (raw sugar), or the nuts of the areca palm that are chopped, wrapped in betel leaves and chewed as paan, the Indian version of chewing tobacco - but in Vedic times kings had themselves weighed against gold that was then distributed as alms amongst the population. The custom persisted well into the seventeenth century, and the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great is known to have performed it more than once, using both gold and jewels. The Perla festival was more modest in its offerings, but over a hundred people queued up to donate foodstuffs in the time-honoured pattern. A dwarf was put onto one side of the scales and blessed by an attendant priest with chanted mantras, red kum kum placed on its forehead to signify the third eye of wisdom and rice and flowers sprinkled onto its head. Incense and flame were then offered to purify the offerings that had been piled on the other scale by the sponsors of the puja. These, or their value in cash, were later donated to the charity called the Kamadugha Foundation that has been set up to ensure the little fellows’ preservation. As a dwarf usually weighs in at about 300 pounds, the charity did quite well out of it. A parade, traditional music concert and program to provide information about the size-challenged and their future protection, were all part of the two-day festivities. At this point it should perhaps be mentioned that the Kasaragod dwarf is a type of cow.
The overall aim of the Perla festival was to educate locals about the importance of India’s desi, or native, breeds of cattle, which are declining in numbers. There are nearly 35 recognized breeds of cattle in India; many of them have been reared by aboriginal tribal people for centuries; in such communities the cowshed is often the temple. Each breed one has unique attributes that help it cope with the weather and habitat of its locale, but over the past half century, India’s native breeds have declined as Western breeds of cattle have been imported because they are seen as more productive milkers. Western breeds of cattle (bos Taurus) that are common dairy breeds in Northern climates - Fresians, Jerseys, Brown Swiss – have been brought to India and crossed with native breeds to increase milk production. As with so many other modern solutions for increasing agricultural production, this has proved a shortsighted policy. While yield improves for a short time, it is at a high cost. Western cattle aren’t adapted to the conditions of India , whose native cattle (bos Indicus) have humps to help regulate hydration and long dewlaps of loose skin hanging from the neck that help them release body heat and regulate temperature. They have also evolved to withstand indigenous diseases and parasites and can calve easily without human assistance. While the first generation of hybrid cattle usually yields larger quantities of milk, this soon reduces significantly. Hybrids also require more feed, vaccinations and medicines to help them cope with parasites. While this may be good news for the chemical industry it is quite the opposite for small farmers who, faced with increasing and impossible costs – feed, fertilisers, medicines – they are currently resorting to any means possible to make ends meet. One desperate measure is to lease out their paddy fields to brick makers, who scoop out the fertile earth by the truckload to make bricks. Kerala’s manic building programme, fuelled by money earned in the Gulf, is already causing a potential ecological disaster through the illegal mining of sand from her rivers and coastline, and this selling off of earth could be literally suicidal. It will be very hard for depleted fields to regain their fertility, what then will the small farmer do? Many are already committing suicide at alarming rates all over the subcontinent, Kerala’s hilly areas of Wayyanad being particularly badly effected. More about the manure later. Those milk and dairy products have long been important in India of course, and from very earliest times the bovine has nuzzled close to the divine in the Indian psyche. Steatite seals from the first known culture the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC) depicted humped bulls as in some way sacrosanct. Some, portrayed in profile , are shown with only one horn which lead fanciful indologists to speculate about unicorns. Another seal shows a seated shaman-like figure wearing a massive horned headdress; perhaps he was inviting the spirit of the animal to be his tutelary deity, like an American plains Indian and his bison-god. Centuries later, the Hindu god Shiva’s vehicle, the bull Nandi (‘the Joyous’) would be placed facing all his master’s shrines and also be worshipped as a divine being in its own right. When the Vedic people, who were pastoral nomads probably originating in the south Russian steppes, entered and settled north India gradually displacing the IVC culture, the bull began to cede its importance to the cow, though it was still highly valued in daily life: bullocks pulled carts and oxen ploughed fields, as they still do in much of the rural subcontinent.. But it was the cow’s maternal generosity that won the hearts of the Vedic people, and their sacred texts refer to her as aghnya ‘not to be killed’. They used her milk and curds and ghee (clarified butter), for both food and religious rituals, and in time added her urine and dung to make the panchagavya – ‘five sacred products of the cow’. To this day all are still used in these traditional ways, as well as forming the ingredients for many ayurvedic medicines. At the village level, cow dung serves as a fuel for cooking fires, a building material mixed with mud to make huts and, thanks to its antimicrobial properties, a disinfectant plaster for interior floors and walls. As Hinduism evolved, the cow found her place in the pantheon. Krishna, the God of Love, is always associated with the creatures, and lived in a rural idyll amongst the cowgirls and herders of Vrindavan in north India. The god is celebrated in the best of Indian miniature painting and here the cow helped too. Brilliant yellow and orange pigments were made from the dried solids from the urine of cows fed on mangos, while the finest details were painted with brushes made from a single hair plucked from her ear. Most fanatabulous of all cows is Kamadhenu ‘the wish granting cow’ who will materialise whatever he owner desires. She is depicted in a style that recalls ancient Persian idioms with a human head with hair in long dark plaits style and female breasts with a cow’s body and udders, topped off with wings and a short peacock-like tale. To the Western mind, Mahatma Gandhi’s praise for the goumatha (mother cow) may seem to be just as fantastic as the kamadhenu but this would be to misunderstand the Indian psyche. The father if the nation once wrote “I yield to none in my worship of the cow. Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world and is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution”. Partly due to Gandhi’s influence, vegetarianism has become synonymous with Hinduism to many westerners, but Indians ate meat in the early historical periods, and many do today, although orthodox brahmins are always strictly veggie. Nor were cow products necessarily taboo. In ancient times, the skin of a dead cow was placed over the head of an arbitrator in boundary disputes, in the belief that the grace and wisdom of the animal would guide his judgement. T hose who worked in leather were always very low caste while today, the skin of cattle who have died a natural death can be used for shoes and other leather goods and leather workers are usually Muslim. Cow slaughter continues to provoke fierce outbreaks of rioting between the two religious communities, especially since the rise of various right wing Hindu groups. Carrying the Gandhian banner into modern times is the founder and leading light of Kamadugha, the organisation that hosted the Perla show, a Hindu monk called Swami Raghaveshwara Bharathi. He is hailed as a Shankaracharya, one of the supreme religious authorities in Hinduism and his mission, that describes itself as ‘a massive environmental, agricultural, economic, and spiritual movement’ is based at his ashram in Hosanagara, Karnataka, where he has the world’s largest collection of Indian cattle breeds. The Swami has devoted his life to improving the welfare of cattle; last year he rode a bullock cart 2,000 kilometers across India campaigning for the preservation of native breeds and cattle welfare in general. The agro-academics are also taking the dwarf seriously; cattle conservation trusts are working with the Kerala Veterinary University boffins and government officials to get the beast formally registered by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources in Faridabad. Official status will ensure it becomes a priority for research and conservation.
The cow’s supporters are already convinced of her usefulness. Although the Kasaragod breed is a low milk producer, with an average yield of about one litre per day which sufficient to feed a calf, the milk is believed to have powerful medicinal properties for humans, partly because the constituent particles of miniature cattle products, being smaller are better absorbed by the human body. This medicinal potential applies to her dung and urine also. Moreover, when these are mixed with jaggery and pulses, the resultant slurry has 300 times more beneficial micro-organisms than conventional organic manure. The fertilising properties are consequently enormous and yield extraordinary results. This, plus the fact that she is so low maintenance and feeds kitchen scraps would make the beast ideal for people in the mountain jungles of Kerala and Karnataka who can keep cattle for milk and manure fertilizer without having to grow or harvest hay or rice paddy stalks to feed them. Demand for the Kasaragod dwarf is increasing, as and other miniature breeds like her such as the slightly larger Vechur are seen to have a prime role in the Zero Budget Farming movement. This is spearheaded by Subhash Palekar, a revolutionary ecologist who seeks to develop alternative and relevant strategies and practices for small scale farmers and cultivators. A good introduction to this growing concept is his book: The Philosophy of Spiritual Farming. All this presents a very different picture from modern farming, where cow manure is viewed as dangerous or toxic. In Western countries beef cattle are fed large amounts of corn which creates an abnormal amount of acid in cows’ rumens making the manure too acidic to be used as fertilizer. The routine use of antibiotics in cattle feed has created resistant superbugs like the infamous e-coli, a serious public health problem directly related to the attitude of treating animals as inanimate machines for industrial food production. Cattle are deeply woven into the tapestry of traditional Indian culture at all levels, but it is clear that if India’s native breeds disappear so do the benefits of animals that over time have been specially adapted to the environment. Once those cattle are gone so are their unique gifts to mankind and a natural way of living on the land is also lost forever. Modernization doesn’t have to eradicate what nature has already provided for humans; let us use our scientific knowledge to enhance what has already been provided, rather than blindly to eliminate it.