Cows have been a part of Delhi’s landscape with plenty of stories spun around them
One doesn’t see many cattle in Delhi these days except for stray cows blocking the roads in some areas. But things were quite different 50 or 60 years ago when Chaman and his brother kept buffaloes and cows. In Old Delhi one found Muslim gwalas or milkmen in Chatta Lal Mian, and Hindu gwalas at Mori Gate but most of them lived near the jungle on the Yamuna bank. The population explosion has ended cattle rearing.
One remembers going to Chaman’s shed early in the morning, walking all the way to Chatta Lal Mian, not far from Daryaganj’s Tehraha Bairam Khan. Chaman was a dark, stocky man and his brother even stouter. Their mother was an octogenarian and Chaman’s wife, a comely village woman with just a sari draped around her and her hair open, would be seen helping “Sookhie Pehlwan” (a thin youngster who behaved like a strongman) feed hay to the buffaloes and cows. The buyers’ queue was long in the morning and the two gwalas kept milking the buffaloes into buckets before pouring the milk into utensils held out by the customers. Some just brought an aluminium glass or brass lota for a pau (250 grams) of milk. There was one balding man who kept staring at Chaman’s wife, but she didn’t seem to mind his dirty looks as she was too busy with her work. But Sookhie sometimes tried to shoo the chap away by blowing up his puny chest, hitting a lathi on the ground and asking Chaman to get rid of him first. Chaman, however, was blissfully unaware of why Sookhie kept making that strange request, much to the annoyance of those who had queued up earlier than the ogler.
Talking of Delhi’s cattle wealth, this is what the old gazetteer says: “Cattle form an important feature of the agricultural economy of the district. An ordinary Jat will certainly have his yoke of oxen and a cow or buffalo or both. A cow gives eight or 10 calves, one a year; and a buffalo will give 15 or more. The cattle are milked at sunrise and again before sundown. Among the cattle the bhoori (grey-brown) buffalo is the best.” Hence the saying by one angry man to another, “Have I carried off your bhoori buffalo?” (that you are being cross with me).
“Sheep and goats cannot feed when the dew is on the ground: they get worms in the mouth and feet,” the gazetteer says. Water was given to them twice a day in summer and once in winter. In buffaloes and cows, Rora (a cholera-like disease) was a great scourge. “To do away with it, a rope was tied across from one house to another (of a gwala basti). A weed called bhainsa-gugal was then burnt like incense in a fire” and its smoke was made to curl around all the animals which either stopped the disease from spreading or prevented its occurrence. Both Hindus and Muslims observed this practice.
From Delhi city the cattle were led to the Yamuna bank by hired graziers who were paid when they brought them back at “gau-dhooli” or dusk. Sometimes teenage boys helped them. But they could be a nuisance as cases of bestiality were not uncommon. Only a few cases were reported and the offender was generally given a good beating and asked not to come near the herd again. Another unusual thing was buffaloes and cows were prevented from entering thickets with a pool or rainwater under a babool (Acacia nilotica) tree. The belief was that it was haunted and could harm both the cattle and the graziers. That’s probably why herds were taken to pastures new after the monsoon. And that, incidentally, was also the time when Nawab Qudsia Begum hatched a plot with a milkman in mid-18th Century in the Red Fort to kill the Mughal Minister Haider Quli, whose haveli still exists in Chandni Chowk.
Now, besides the stray cows, one sees buffaloes crossing over from Hari Nagar to Subhash Nagar and causing a traffic jam sometimes. Earlier they were herded into a grassy ground between Mayapuri and Subhash Nagar, where they grazed the whole day. But since the ground has now been converted into a park, the cattle are taken towards the open land near the drain that passes through an under-developed Rajouri Garden area. Chaman and his brother are dead, so are his wife and sons. The grandsons are around though they do not keep cattle or sell milk now. Thus have Delhi’s pastoral connections ended and nobody, except cricket commentators, take recourse to the saying, “Till the cows come home” when a batsman holds on.