P.N. Sampath Kumar,
Cochin Ship Yard, Kochi (India)
Not very long ago, in our villages, when farming used to be our main vocation, there lived a kind of livestock, Buffalo.
This lazy looking cattle, unlike its cousins, a cow or a deer, doesn’t converse with you with its eyes and erected ears. It has a skin that matches much with the muddy waters where it always desired to be in. The set of hones conveyed that it is always on an ‘attack’ mode.
No wonder, Yama, the god of death, chose him to be his vehicle. Devi Durga (Mahishasura Mardhini) is portrayed as the killer of “Mashisha Asura” (A devil in the guise of a Buffalo). In Kerala, Lord Ayyappa is said to have killed ‘Mahishi’, the buffalo demon, who distracted the Rishis from their rituals.
Its milk is avoided for religious rituals and in ayurvedic formulations. Local dialects have many examples of abusive phrases synonymous with Buffalo, to address someone who is lazy and insensitive.
Somewhere, man tamed him to work in the farm to plough and subsequently for milk. Possibly taming them happened much later than the Cow. Initially those who domesticated it would have been comparatively uncivilised and hence possibly this animal continued to be the paraya livestock.
Pakistan has a considerable amount of Buffalo wealth. Those days, down south, “Ravuthars”, a group of Tamil speaking Muslim community, travelled across the remote villages in Kerala, engaged in trading buffalos amongst other things and popularised it in the villages. The divinity associated with cow among Hindus would have prompted Muslims to take up Buffalo rearing.
With all these taboos associated with this animal, it too formed part of festivities in some parts of our country. During one of those ONAM days, in central Kerala, just before the muddy paddy fields are prepared for planting, Pothottam (buffalo race) is celebrated, though on a low key basis now a days.
For a farmer, working in the field, this is an important day. The rituals are held outside the house where the animal is tied to a tree after it is washed and garlanded applying sandalwood and other decorations. After the short prayers and other offerings including alcohol to the gods, the animal is fed with the food items including alcohol. The rituals are well supported by drum beats.
Once lunch is finished, it is time for the buffalo to be taken to the village ground. It is a huge task to untie the animal and guide it to the venue. It needs five six people on either side of the big rope to manage and guide the already hyped animal. The rituals would be reminding it of its feral origin.
There are at least half a dozen such groups assembling at the grounds. The community heads meet there, exchange pleasantries and reaffirm the leadership of the chieftain, who subsequently sits on the top of a tall stone seat, a throne and conducts durbar.
In the evening they come back in a procession dancing to their traditional tunes. It is difficult to make out whether they are elevating the animal or reducing themselves to the animal. Whichever way, it is recognition to the friend ‘Buffalo’ who partnered with them in the field.
When milk started selling in big cans, house to house, and cow’s milk became scarce, people in towns opted for buffalo milk. Its rich fat content made it an instant hit amongst the tea shop owners, the main consumers of milk in a town, and buffalo milk started selling at premium though the by-products, mainly butter, was often sold at a discount.
When bullock carts were ruling our roads, buffalos enjoyed better status elsewhere. In East and South East Asia, it was used only as propulsion in carts and for ploughing farmland.
Veterinarians classify them into two types, the ‘riverine’ and ‘swamp’. Riverine is the lactating breed found throughout Indian sub continent whereas the swamp variety, dominant in the East Asia and south East Asia is a power house to propel and till the farms.
The water buffalos that we would have encountered in our childhood would have been the low yielding swamp varieties which always loved to be submerged in mud. The black and white photo albums of yester years by any photographer would be incomplete without having in it a photograph of a herd of water buffalos led by a peasant boy on the back of one of them with a long stick in his hand. No visitor to a village those days would have missed the sight of village boys travelling on the back of a buffalo.
Thanks to the white revolution. Cross breeding of local varieties with high yielding ‘Jaffarabadi’ and ‘Murrah’ varieties produced a new genesis of a hybrid variety, resulting in increased milk production. 60% of total milk produced in India and around 70% in Pakistan are from Buffalos. It will be surprising to know that India is the highest producer of buffalo milk constituting about 65% and together with Pakistan, it constitutes more than 85% of world production. We earn considerable money from dairy products. Yet, it is pity that we are unable to develop an international brand for our Paneer (cottage cheese) and Kowa.
Italy is the only country outside Asia, which boasts of their water buffalo rearing tradition. Their pride, the Italian mozzarella cheese, available world over, is made of water buffalo milk. It is another surprise that they have less than 1% share of the total buffalo milk production in the world. Italians are said to have set high standards for the genetics, breeding and hygiene in buffalo rearing. But it is doubtful if our buffalos can stand the so called ‘hygiene’.
But the problem with cross breeding is that it created a generation of cattle without a genetic identity having low immunity level and inability to cope up with the extreme climatic conditions. Their maintenance became a burden to the farmers whereas the traditional low yielding variety produced high quality products with lesser care, though lower in volume. Farmers attempting to milk the water buffalos with the assistance of dummy calves made of straw and stuff like that has been a regular sight in our villages. The calves have high mortality rate when domesticated.
As in any other sphere, technology eliminated these living tractors from the fields and roads. But occasionally, during our long train journeys, we get as a surprise, visuals of a farmer ploughing the fields with a set of water buffalos, singing a song, often coupled with the rich smell of fermented mud, ready to take seeds and saplings into its womb. We jump out of ecstasy. The poor farmer would not have heard the proverb in Malayalam meaning “it is useless to chant ‘veda’ into the ears of a Buffalo”. He believes that buffalos enjoy his song?
It was interesting to note a cultural tip given to the visitors to Thailand in one of the tourist websites as follows:
“Water buffalo are called “kwai” in Thai. It is extremely rude to refer to a person as a ‘kwai’ because water buffalo have a reputation for being stupid and stubborn.”
Painfully, we still maintain the same primitive attitude towards this very useful animal across different cultures.
He deserves some more dignity.