Working and Wandering: Animals in Nineteenth Century Urban North India

Lloyd Price

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Cows resting on a busy street in Jaipur (photo by Lloyd Price, 2015)

Traveling across northern India, the sheer number of domesticated animals that cross your path is at times staggering. Rural villages are densely packed with cows, buffalos and goats that come and go between the houses and fields. Many animals also inhabit large urban areas, moving through the streets, climbing the trees and feasting on the waste people leave behind. In televised depictions of India, camera shots of wandering cattle have become synonymous with the subcontinent for global audiences. Their sight is profound for tourists (this one included!), because in the western world mechanisation has almost completely replaced animal labour. Urban spaces in India are also home to what ethologists define as commensal species, animals that have co-evolved alongside human settlements, surviving on the resources and security they provide.[i] To this day, Indian cities are inhabited by domesticated and stray dogs, macaque and langur monkeys, along with a range of reptiles and birds that are regularly spotted in the districts of major metropolises.

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Herds of cattle and flocks of goats are a common sight of North India’s landscapes (photo by Rachel Murray, 2016)

Up until the twentieth century, urban spaces around the world were also filled with animals, ‘living machines’ that powered the city,[ii] their caloric energy carrying humanity into the industrial era.[iii] As such, for British residents in nineteenth century India, there was nothing especially irregular about cattle wandering the streets. Domesticated animals are a common feature of artistic renditions of India’s urban sprawls, figures that seamlessly blend into the movements and lives of the people. Painters such as Charles D’Oyly (1781 – 1845) created beautiful vistas, chaotic street scenes and serene holy spaces that are filled with dogs, goats and cows (see below).

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Artistic representations often featured a plethora of animal that molded into urban life. Charles D’Oyly, Hindoo Mut in the Chitpore Bazaar (1848)

John Lockwood Kipling, father of the famous novelist Rudyard Kipling, was enthralled by India’s wild and domestic animals, publishing Beast and Man in India in 1891. Throughout the text, he offers a wealth of detailed illustrations that provide historians with excellent visual representations of animals in urban life (see below).

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Numerous animals were used for traction and transport. John Lockwood Kipling, Beast and man in India (1891)

In addition, his work highlights a number of tensions that surrounded the presence of non-human agents in urban spaces, problems and concerns that emerged time and time again in the British Library’s archive of nineteenth century vernacular newspaper reports. For example, in 1879 the Samáchár Sár protested that ‘in Allahabad horses, buffaloes, oxen, and asses are often seen overburdened and cruelly beaten by the owners’. For one conservative observer, the sight of a bullock being goaded in the street was as improper as women beating their breasts in public during the death of a relative, or the singing of indecent songs as part of marriage celebrations.[iv] Similar connotations of indecency pervaded during protests against the organized past time of gambling on quail-fights, cock-fights and ram fights, a popular hobby for the people and rulers of Lucknow, Mewar and Lahore, viscerally depicted in the Hindi film The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray: 1977).[v] On the 10th of March 1883, the Deshopkárak called for the enforcement of the Police Act of 1867 to prevent cruelty to birds and animals forced to fight, but also to object to the act of gambling in any form.[vi]

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Camels are still used for transport in the city (photo by Lloyd Price, 2015)

By contrast, many people complained that working animals caused active or inadvertent harm to the people of the city. Numerous reports discussed the broken bones, sprained ankles and even deaths caused by camels and horse drawn ekka carts. In Ludhiána, reporters lamented that ‘bulls […] continually wander up and down the streets and are a great public nuisance’, as they destroy crops and attack people.[vii] Despite their potential to cause physical harm, along with diseases from their faeces and disruption through their scavenging, calls to banish wandering cattle from the city streets were few and far between.

For many Indian people, the treatment of animals holds special meaning. The majority of the population were and remain vegetarian, especially in the north, where a considerable percentage of people are Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. A core tenant of each religion is the concept of ahimsa, non-violence towards others regardless of species.[viii] As such, practices causing harm to animals are often frowned upon and associated with spiritual “pollution”. For Hindus especially, cattle are sacred animals, deified by the figure of Nandi. In nineteenth century cow protectionist discourse, the body of gau mata (mother cow) provided the strength and material wealth of the Indian nation through her five living products, known as the panchagavya (milk, dung, urine, curds and ghee). Bulls and bullocks formed the foundations of Indian agriculture. They pulled ploughs, towed carts, and powered Persian wheel irrigation systems, making life possible for India’s agrarian population. In honour of their service, many cattle were allowed to wander the streets and receive veterinary treatment at goshalas and pinjrapoles, animal care homes which according to Deryck Loderick sprung up in great numbers in the late nineteenth century.[ix]

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Decorated cattle paraded by cow herders in the city streets (photo by Padma Anagol, 2014)

In many states the slaughter of cattle is considered to be a punishable offence, at times spilling into violence in the streets. For example, the Kavivachan Sudha reported that on the 15th of November 1880, the day of the Islamic festival of Id, a number of Hindus in Mirzapur confronted a Muslim named Akbar Ali Khan who ‘drove a cow from his house to that of a butcher and beat her in order to make her run faster’. Fearing that the cow would be slaughtered in a sacrifice, at night ‘about one hundred Hindus entered the butcher’s house and took the cow by force’. Yet the following day Ali Khan simply purchased a different cow, and paraded her on the way to the butchers, repeatedly shouting, ‘in order to vex the Hindus, that she was going to be sacrificed’.[x] Such instances repeatedly emerge in the newspaper archive, tempting the historian to view the significance of the cow as purely religious. Generally, anthropologists and historians are divided between those who argue that the cow became sacred because of its material value,[xi] and those who contented that its spiritual importance is purely a cultural construction.[xii] The former have been accused of ecological determinism, while the latter of reducing the agency of the people to communal religiosity, forms of identity that were produced and reinforced by colonial rule and discourse.[xiii]

As this brief introduction to my research has hopefully shown, the sources available to historians about urban animals are often loaded with socio-cultural tensions, as well as the lingering presence of the colonial officials that chose to select and translate specific reports. It is clear that the lives of cattle in Indian cities have been influenced by a host of material, spiritual and health concerns. Increasingly, scholars have rejected stringent theoretical divisions that divided earlier scholarship, and now choose to address the multitude of forces that shape the history of interactions between humans and cattle. Building on this assertion, my current aim is to find a way to use these sources to understand how this plethora of factors shaped the daily lives of cattle, both reinforcing and defining their capacity to act, behave and inhabit India’s urban spaces at the turn of the twentieth century.

Lloyd Price is a historian of south Asia, co-supervised at Cardiff University and the University of Bristol. He is interested in concepts of animal agency, human-animal interactions and the environment. His PhD thesis focuses on cows, bullocks and buffalos in colonial India, analysing perceptions of their impact upon colonial and indigenous veterinary discourses of animal productivity and welfare. During his MA (Cardiff University 2013-14), he studied colonial efforts to control venomous snake populations in late nineteenth century India. In addition to the thesis, he is learning Hindi with the HindiHour institution in Jaipur.


[i] Terry O’Connor, Animals as Neighbours: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals, (East Lansing, 2014), p 7.

[ii] Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 2007), p 18.

[iii] Alan Mikhail, The Animal in Ottoman Egypt, (Oxford, 2014), p 26.

[iv] India Office Record (henceforth IOR) L/P/5/56, Samáchár Sár, (Allahabad), 14 Apr. 1879, p 306.

[v] Julie Hughes, Animal Kingdoms: Hunting, the Environment, and Power in the Indian Princely States (Cambridge: MA, 2013), p 98.

[vi] IOR/L/R/5/60, Deshopkárak (Lahore), 10 Mar. 1883, p 223.

[vii] IOR/L/R/5/61, Núr Afshán (Ludhiána) 4 Dec. 1884, p 846.

[viii] Christopher Chapple, Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the web of life, (Massachusetts, 2002), p xxxi.

[ix] Deryck O. Lodrick, Sacred Cows, Sacred Places; Origins and Survivals of Animal Homes in India, (Berkeley, 1981), p 13.

[x] IOR/L/R/5/58 Kavivachan Sudha (Benares) 3 Jan. 1881, p 7.

[xi] Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, (New York, 1974).

[xii] Frederick J. Simoons, Eat not this flesh: Food avoidances from prehistory to the present, (Madison, 1961).

[xiii] Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, (Delhi, 1990), p 4.

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