Shifts in Cattle Culture under Colonial Rule

in Overview
Published on: 21 August 2018

Vishal Pratap Singh Deo

Vishal is a doctoral candidate at the department of history, University of Delhi. His work looks at the political economy of caste in Muzaffarnagar (western Uttar Pradesh).


The Revolt of 1857 was perhaps the last serious challenge faced by the British Empire. Fought under the banner of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the cessation of hostilities ended with his exile to Rangoon (modern-day Myanmar). Zafar and his times barely resembled the warlike and mobile history of the early Mughals. By the 1850s, the Marathas, another mobile group of warriors, were reduced to lesser allies in the service of the British crown. Incidentally, these political developments marked a point of departure in the way the state now engaged with groups, yet to be sedentarised.  This may be seen in the way the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 reified and brought several itinerant groups under a category of the ‘hereditary criminals’ (Tucker 1925).


This essay locates pastoral traditions of North India as a way to understand the shifts in the culture of cattle rearing, especially under the ever-expanding shadows of a surveillance state. Herders and pastoralists shared a dichotomous relationship with the British, especially after the 1850s. They used to appear in colonial literature as cattle lifters, dacoits and wanderers or were seen as spies carrying necessary information of use to the state in its great game against Russia (Zadeh 2002). The diverse pastoral traditions represent a history of aversion and compromise towards the state, both colonial and post-colonial. While some social groups are seen to increasingly sedentarise in the face of punitive colonial laws that have continued to persist in post-Independence India, many have retained a continuous sense of autonomy towards their earlier pastoral traditions.


Much of the pulls and pressures experienced by cattle-rearing groups may be attributed to the experiments in the land, beginning with the enclosing of common lands in 18th-century England. The enclosures restricted access to grazing land, turning vast forests into fenced farms (Thompson 1991). The push for a similar experiment in land, refracted through the experience of colonialism, would reach colonies as far as the Indian subcontinent. In India, the shifts in land use pattern signalled a shift in customary access over grazing lands, simultaneous to the rapid decline of subsistence crops making way for commercially grown wheat, sugarcane and cotton.


Historically, and even before the coming of colonialism, the binary between the aranya (forest) and the graama (village) is used to explain the pulls between a settled way of life and those relying on the forests for sustenance (Gommans 1998:1–23). While the forests were necessary for the graamas to access grazing lands, those living in the aranya saw in the village the opportunity for employment, young cattle and soldiers for recruitment. The tensions, or rather the frontier lines between the settled and the peripatetic, continue, according to Gommans, much into the 19th century. This complimentary opposition is distinct from the Eurasian experience where wandering pastoralists and fixed sedantists are seen to share a more overlapping relationship.


Barring the alluvial doab of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, which allow for settled agriculture, the arid zones of Central, North-West and North India have necessitated several social groups to adapt to the diminishing returns from the land. As a result, much of these arid areas share a common culture, owing to the numerous pastoral routes that traverse this region. The proof of such cultural markers is seen in the way the landscape is dotted by numerous shrines dedicated to folk deities such as Gogaji and Devnarayan (Bharucha 2003:86–125). The heroes are revered through popular folk epics for their intervention in protecting the cattle. The shrines come alive each year during annual folk festivals, often attracting lakhs of pilgrims. The epics are performed over successive nights by the bards including the male bhopa and female bhopis, often belonging to marginalised castes. Gogaji shrines may be found in Gujarat, and even in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. The Jats of North India are seen as the essential patron of Gogaji. While the Jats are more sedentarised than the otherwise pastoral Rabaris and the Gujjars, their reverence towards the deity marks a sense of memory that is rooted in an earlier pastoral tradition.


Gogaji’s popularity may be further understood or located spatially using Komal Kothari’s formulation of essentially dividing cultures into agrarian zones. Taking a cue from Levi Strauss’s approach in understanding myth and reality, Kothari sifted through the fantastical elements in folk epics to arrive at descriptions of land, climate, flora and fauna. This allowed him to map western Rajasthan into the jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet) and makka (maize) zones, which enabled a more nuanced understanding of not just pastoralists but also various other social groups and life processes. Understandably then, Gogaji was found to be associated with the makka zone. Kothari was able to use this to map musical traditions, food, methods of irrigation and other performative aspects. Like Gogaji, Kothari observed how Hir and Ranjjha, the famous protagonists of a North Indian tragic romance, are invoked as a weapon by pastoralists against the deadly foot-and-mouth disease. For successive nights, the tragic love story is retold not just in western Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab but also in parts of Uttar Pradesh, mainly the Braj region (Bharucha 2003:12–13).


The complex nature of nomadism and hence cattle traditions has offered several definitions of nomadism. Foragers−peripatetic’ are understood as either cattle-breeders who hunt, trap or appear as musicians and dancers, salt-carriers, bamboo-splitters and tattooers (Gurumurthy 1996). The category of ‘pastoralists and peripatetic’ are said to sell their herding services rather than actually own cattle. This means subsisting on transporting cattle on behalf of the primary owners or herding cattle as part of the annual grazing season (Varady 1979:1–18). These are just a few of the various economic functions performed by cattle-rearing itinerants. The cumbersome process of locating distinct identities and practices amongst cattle-rearing groups is met with the fuzziness in social traffic and the overlapping characteristics associated with castes and tribes. Jats, Gujjars and Charans have, in different regions of North India, shown aspects of itinerant cattle rearing, settled agriculture or moving from agriculture into a more settled courtly culture, as in the case of the Charans. Similarly the Jats, too, it is said, have been identified at various points in time as sailors, fishermen and pastoral nomads (Rao 1982:23−5). Such overlap is suggestive of the numerous chores and occupations that have historically and contemporaneously been associated with cattle-rearing groups.


The census exercise which began in 1872 with the identification and enumeration of a vast body of people is perhaps responsible for ending the ‘governmental’ dilemma over overlapping occupational groups. A year prior, in 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed to criminalise vast bodies of peripatetic groups. For instance, the Jats emerge at this time as important land owners owing to their large scale sedentarisation. This occupational shift is understood by the state as the character of ‘industrious’ peasants. Meanwhile, the peripetatic Gujjars, culturally similar to the Jats but located within a more agro-pastoralist world proved to be hostile to the sedentarising designs of the state. Consequently, by 1924 the Gujjars were added to the list of criminal tribes (Frontline 2007). The story of numerous other itinerant groups runs a similar course. The Banjaras, who until the demise of the Mughal Empire worked as key suppliers of grain and formed an important part of the rear-guard baggage train of colonial and princely armies, were now considered criminals (Bhukiya 2010).


Proof of this may be seen in the way colonial land settlement measures affected rights over grazing and access to cultivable land to mobile social groups. In 1871, the state passed the Cattle Trespass Act, bringing punitive restrictions on the movement of cattle, said to be causing damage to ‘such roads, grounds, plantations, canals, drainage-works, embankments, and the like, or the sides or slopes or such roads, canals, drainage-works, or embankments, or found straying thereon (Cattle Trespass Act 1871).'


The creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 allowed room for a critique of the two-nation theory, mainly through the experience of the millions who were uprooted from their place of birth. While sympathies on both sides of the border ran large for families who were made to leave their homesteads in exchange of new identities and a homeland, little is spoken about the sudden end to the numerous caravan routes and shared traditions that defined the lives of pastoral communities living along the newly formed border. Mayaram (2014:191–222) highlights how the attitude of the Indian Army towards Gujjar pastoralists is coloured with much hostility. Gujjars living along the border are not just criminalised or branded as spies but also made to do the bidding of the Indian and Pakistani armies.


Despite there being several challenges to the survival of nomadic tradition across the world, there is evidence to suggest that nomadism, particularly herding, offers sustenance to millions of people even today. Broader social categories are now used to investigate such social groups in the subcontinent. This is done bearing in mind the overlapping identities of castes and tribes and the conflict over resources and occupation. Surviving in some of the most ecologically fragile areas of the earth, these groups adopt mobility as a key strategy for survival. This is seen most in transhumance communities, otherwise known as Ghumkar or Khanabadosh (Rao and Casmir 2003). Transhumance is a practice of wide and long seasonal migrations in pursuit of grazing lands. Such pastoralism is prevalent in dry areas, such as the Deccan Plateau, western Rajasthan and the mountainous region of the Himalayas. Livestock such as yaks, camel, buffaloes, sheep, goats, donkeys and ducks form a part of such pastoral traditions (Sharma, Rollefson and Morton:1–63).


In the Himalayas, for instance, pastoralists take their herds up to the highlands during the summer months, only to return to the lowlands with the onset of monsoon. The significant herding communities found in Jammu and Kashmir, and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh as well, are the Bakkarwals and Gujjars. Deeper into to the hills one sees the sheepherding Bhotias of Uttar Pradesh and the yak-herding Sherpas of Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim. Towards the west of India, lie the western Indian tracts, said to be part of a long arid chain of land that has encouraged the survival of various pastoral groups. The transhumance herders here move with their sheep and goats while also taking responsibility of a vast number of cattle, often camel or sheep belonging to particular villages. Here the owner of the cattle hands over his flock to the herdsman who then oversees the upkeep and movement through long distances.




The dromedary, also called the Arabian camel, according to Gommans, was bred as far back as 1000 BC, but it wasn’t until the common era that it became an essential means of transport. This was made possible due to the integration of camel-breeding practices into pastoral life (Gommans 1998:1–23). The increasing popularity of the dromedary is marked by the decline in the use of its counterpart, the Bactrian double-humped-back camel, which, according to Bulliet (1990), was pushed back to the north in Central Asia. The emergence of Islam in the 8th century coincides with the development of the single-humped-back camel in Central Asia and Iran. By AD 1000 the breed is said to have been introduced into India. According to Bulliet (1990) and attested by Gommans (1998), the introduction of the single-humped-back camel coincides with the war horse revolution in South Asia.


Survivability of the dromedary has been faced by a rapid decline over the last two hundred years. Dependent mainly on the availability of grazing lands, the breed has few options in the face of restricted access to common lands and pastoral routes. Kohler Rollefson has documented the Raikas over several years, underlining their methods of sustenance, mobility and survivability. The epic attests to how a Raika named Hermal was responsible for introducing the camel to Rajasthan. Sociologically, the Raikas are classified into the Maru and Chalkia sub-groups where the Maru is said to be camel breeders and Chalkia the sheep breeders. The decline of camel breeding has led many Raikas to turn to breeding sheep (Rollefson 1992:74–83).


The end of the monsoon announces the start of the long migration, often lasting up to nine months. The Raikas move in camps, locally referred to as dangs and are led by elected leaders called nambardars. As their leader, a nambardar must settle disputes with owners of land as a result of trespassing, negotiate bribes with government contacts, arrange for medicines, supplies and be responsible for the livestock at fairs and festivals.


The Raikas are responsible for not just their cattle but also those of the Rajputs and Jats. This calls for strict overseeing to prevent inbreeding. In the case of camels, the herd sire is replaced every four years, and the breeding bull is selected bearing in mind his temper, built, colour and the milk yield of female relatives. The Raikas do not sell camels to one another but rather receive them as gifts at the time of marriage. The market for camel trade, however, continues to rely on traditional fairs in Pushkar, Nagaur and Tilwara. Some of the famous strains are said to be found in Rajasthan; they are ‘the reddish-toned Bikaneri, multiuse Jaisalmeri, the dark brown Marwari and the whitish Mewari’ (Rollefson 1992:80).


Camels are used mainly for drought purposes, although camel wool is sheared just before Holi in March and sold to weavers who then manufacture coats and blankets out of them. Camel milk carries a taboo when it comes to its commercial exploitation. The milk is used for consumption by the Raikas who subsist on camel milk and milk products for days. When back in their camps, they usually rely on the milk of cows and buffaloes. More recently, increasing restrictions on grazing lands and the uncertainties of camel trade have led many camel herders to sell their camel for meat (Rollefson 1992:74−82). This may appear ironical as the camel is the symbolic mainstay of Rajasthan tourism, even appearing on its crest. This portends ominous signs for the future of the Rajasthani camel and the living traditions of the Raikas.




Given the decline in the cattle-rearing traditions, many Raikas have shifted to rearing sheep. While the logic of migration and appointment of the nambardar continue to remain the same, the sale of wool and meat is done with the participation of shearers, wool merchants and buyers. The shearers use traditional clips called lavas to clip the wool, watched by the wool merchants who make purchases. Sheep buyers also participate in these transactions as many of the sheep are culled to offset cash-flow problems (Arun Agarwal 1994:131–44).


Currently, it is said that there are up to 42 descript breeds of sheep in India which change in size, shape and colour due to ecological and agricultural conditions (Roy 2003:257–86). Indian wool is of two types, carpet and apparel wool, with carpet wool being of a longer staple, coarser and stronger, and designed for rough use. Apparel wool, on the other hand, is of a shorter staple and is softer. Few regions, with the exception of Kashmir in the north and the Nilgiri in the south, develop apparel wool.


The Kumaoni Bhotiyas, said to be traders in wool, were also sheep herders who moved every summer with their cattle to markets in Tibet to purchase wool in exchange of utensils, grain, tobacco and silver. With the beginning of winter, they would begin their descent, stopping at fairs in Bageshwar and Thal. This, according to Roy (2003), is much unlike the shepherds in the plains who wove their wool on the move. What perhaps explains the Bhotiya aversion to weaving are the treacherous passes in the hills which at times would be so narrow that they would only offer enough space for sheep to pass. The Bhotiyas did take cattle with them which they left in the upper reaches while they transacted their business on the Tibet side.


In 1865, the state added restrictions to the access to forests, instead encouraging the peasantisation and sedentarisation of these regions. This immediately led to restricted access to grazing lands. According to Roy (2003), the quantity of land available was now supplanted by the quality of land available for grazing. The addition of railways determined which regions would emerge as important markets for wool. Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Ludhiana in Punjab would draw much of the wool trade. Shepherds who earlier wove their wool into coarse products relied increasingly on weaving as rearing and herding became difficult in the face of growing state control on grazing.




Unlike sheep and camel whose history and present circumstances may be found in the long-distance movement of nomadic herders, the tradition of bovine rearing under colonial rule was made to complement the demands of tilling vast amounts of privately held land. The direct result of revenue settlement operations conducted across colonial India, beginning in the early 19th century, was meant to encourage revenue-generating crops such as sugarcane, wheat, rice and cotton. The understanding that landowners could now hold a title deed also meant that the same people could lay a claim on owning the necessary cattle to till these lands.


The Gujjars, historically seen as agro-pastoralists, would suffer due to the Cattle Trespass Act of 1871 and were much later brought under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 in the year 1924. In popular memory, the Gujjars are said to have resisted Rajput attempts to hold their cattle captive. Devnarayan, the Gujjar chief of 9,80,000 cattle and belonging to the jowar-growing areas, is said to have rebelled against the Rajput Rana, said to be lord of 52 forts, to free his cattle (Mayaram 2014:191–222).


In contrast, the period after the 1860s is also a moment when various voices begin to speak on behalf of the protection of the cow. The murmurs favouring cow protection would grow to an alarming pitch by the 1880s. Numerous meetings, gaurakshini sabhas, were organised by the Arya Samaj in colonial North India to mobilise opinion on cow protection (Adcock 2010:297–311). This occurs simultaneously to the persecution of the Gujjars and their marginalisation from cattle pastoralism.


Despite there being no evidence to suggest that the cow population was actually under threat, there is a reason to believe that the declining use of the cow in agricultural purposes was a direct outcome of using stronger drought cattle to enable the production of two to three crops. Much later, after Independence, the large-scale mechanisation of agriculture reduced the demand for even drought cattle, with farmers more keen to use such cattle for domestic milk consumption. The tensions between mechanisations, shifts in agricultural practices and the politics of the cow have taken place alongside the rise of a formal and mass-produced dairy economy.


Poorer yields of milk are often blamed on the tropical climates or the inferior quality of indigenous breeds. However, a bovine culture which has been structurally removed from its earlier dependence on local grass, mobility and pastoral castes offers little room for a study into what the actual yields of milk and dairy products may have been. Furthermore, the introduction of chemical fertilisers would increasingly prevent pastoralists from now accessing fields for overnight stay of sheep, cows/buffaloes/oxen or goats. Cattle feed is now meant to be purchased at prices that are often unaffordable by most pastoralists.


The story of cattle in India is one which has meandered the colonial and post-colonial experience. The circumstances of pastoralists have pushed many to switch to alternate professions, often turning to sedentary lifestyles/agriculture. The Jats, Rajputs and Charans are examples of caste groups who barely resemble their historical roots in pastoralism. As for cattle, as explained in this essay, the anxieties of the state continue to loom large over the prospects of pastoralists. Contemporaneously, much of decay in pastoral lives has been elided by the sudden gaze over cow protection led by Hindu supremacists. Quite often, there is a retelling of narratives made more than a hundred years ago, of declining cattle numbers and a conspiracy to hurt the Hindu sentiment. Little is spoken, however, of the narratives of mobility, local cultures, local deities and shared traditions that have marked the history of pastoralism in India and much of the world.




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