Of Cattle and Marigolds in India and Nepal

Of Cattle and Marigolds in India and Nepal

India has the largest cow population in the world. Producing milk, providing labour and being a source of religious inspiration, cattle have always played a prominent role in the Hindu population of India. By the middle of the first millennium BCE, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism were championing non-violence as an ethical value, and something that impacted one’s rebirth. India, with around 80% of the population being Hindu, has the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world, and more vegetarians than any other country.

There are around 307.5 million cattle, of which about five million are stray cattle. Yes – you read that correctly. Five million STRAY cattle. A cow is considered “stray” when its owner no longer claims ownership, or ownership of the animal cannot be determined. Milk is a staple food in many households in India. However, once a cow stops giving milk, the upkeep of that animal (in terms of feeding and maintenance of its health) becomes a financial burden for the farmer. 

The trading of cows has been reduced by the fear of arrest, persecution and lynching by “cow vigilantes”. Combine this with the fact that cow slaughter is banned in most places in India, with penalties of long imprisonment and huge fines, and one can understand why a farmer would rather simply abandon the cow. 

A major contributor to accident fatalities, these sacred cows (literally) saunter unmolested in India’s traffic-choked streets, revered to the extent that nobody dares to interfere with them. They are worshipped and decorated during festivals, and holy men take cows around with their foreheads smeared in vermillion, to seek alms. 

Often called “The Herb of the Sun”, the marigold is simply everywhere. There is no Hindu ritual that is complete without this little gold flower. They’re made into garlands to welcome visitors and hung at the entrance of homes. They have a religious significance and are also known as the friendship flower. In India, yellow symbolises sanctity and the shade “saffron” represents courage and sacrifice – you will notice it in the top band of the Indian national flag. 

Marigold leis are gifted to welcome visitors…

Portuguese traders first transported marigold flowers to India more than 350 years ago, and they now hold a special place in Hindu culture. Often used during festivals like Diwali and Navratri, as well as in weddings and religious ceremonies, they symbolize purity, auspiciousness, and the divine. Marigolds are woven into garlands placed around guest’s necks, and they have long been featured in Hindu ceremonies as an offering to the gods. Men dip their bodies in the Ganges river, believed to purify the soul, amongst a swirl of marigolds.

Most interesting, and indicative of how introduced items can become pervasively influential, is the fact that the marigold is not indigenous to India. Marigolds hail from Mexico, where they have been cultured for over 2,000 years. In pre-Hispanic times, they were regarded as the flower of the dead, and to this day they are still widely used in the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

‘Discovered’ in the early 16th century, they were taken to Europe and North Africa, where they were adopted into gardens. By the time the plants were introduced into Britain, the African Marigold (Tagetes erecta) had naturalised along the North African coast, which was likely why the English named the plant ‘African’ Marigold. The British called the ‘French’ Marigold the “Rose-of-the-Indies”, whilst in Spain, the flowers were the favourites for placing on the altar of the Virgin Mary. They eventually became known as Mary’s Gold and hence, ‘marigold’. The family name, Tagetes, is derived from a mythical Etruscan deity.

So, next time you see a little marigold, contemplate how far it has travelled and how much meaning has been attributed to this humble bloom…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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