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Right From The Source

As the hot season in Mumbai runs on, and the temperatures linger around low 30s that feel much higher due to the constant humidity, sometimes I don't feel like leaving the house. The 20-minute walk from my air conditioned apartment to my air conditioned office is usually enough (fresh?) air for one day. As I go from project to project at work, the idea of going out just for fun seems exhausting, and waking up early to traipse around the train lines is not necessarily my priority.

Last Shabbat I stayed at home by myself, and in the afternoon I went for a walk. I headed west to Lady Jamshedji Road, one of the main thoroughfares which becomes Swami Vivekananda Marg before it heads over a short bridge into Bandra, the first of the suburbs. As I went, I was reminded of the absurdity of where I live. In the mornings when I walk to work, I put on my sunglasses and headphones, and as I pass the same shacks and tomato vendors every day it's easy to acclimatize to my surroundings. But as I took different roads and side lanes, I was experiencing everything anew - a different kebabwalla on the side of the street, a colourful fishing village shaded from the sun by hanging tapestries and a dilapidated bridge, an entire community living on trash piles under a million-dollar overpass - all within 15 minutes of my home.

My reinvigorated sense of Mumbai adventure led me to wake up early this Wednesday and go out to explore a new area of the city. I took the train to Charni Road, and spent the morning exploring the markets, temples, and hidden finds of the neighbourhood of Girgaon.

Hidden in the middle of a market selling Hindu devotional items that was accessible only through a small doorway cut into a sheet of corrugated metal is the Bombay Panjrapole. The Panjrapole is a 2-acre cow sanctuary set in the middle of the Bhuleshwar Market. Originally built in 1834 to protect stray dogs and pigs from a British edict to shoot lone animals, cows were brought in to provide milk for the strays, and over time, the shelter primarily became a home for stray cows.

But why are there so many stray cows in India, and so many cows in general? In Hinduism, cows are seen as sacred. As with many cultural phenomena here, the exact reason seems difficult to tack down. Some sources say that cows are revered for their gentle nature, in line with the Hindu principle of not harming animals (and the Jewish principle of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chayim). Mahatma Gandhi was a huge proponent of the protection of cows, claiming that the respect that one had for cows was the starting point for exercising non-violence in all walks of life.

Many Hindus have the custom of feeding cows or touching them as they pass. Street vendors set up their cows on the side of the road, and sell different types of grains for pedestrians to buy and perform this ritual. When I've visited other parts of India, there are often loose cows walking around the streets (and the narrow lanes - lanes narrow enough that you have to encourage the cow to move over before you can squeeze through around it). In Mumbai it's actually illegal to leave your cow unattended in the city, and people who do so can be fined and have their cow confiscated. The neighbouring state of Gujarat even has a Cattle Nuisance Control Department. Due to Hindu beliefs, in many states in India (including Maharashtra, where Mumbai is) killing cows is illegal (as is the possession of beef), so many people simply abandon their cows on the streets. Which is why there are over 350 stray cows in the Bombay Panjrapole, and seven more branches of the shelter located throughout the city.

But this post is not to talk about the proliferance of cows in India (over 44 million), or even to tell you about the time when I got a bruise from a cow turning its head and hitting me with its horn as I was walking on the sidewalk. I wanted to talk about another one of the reason why Hindus consider cows to be sacred animals. Some Hindus consider the cow to be a sort of mother-figure - a source of both physical and spiritual sustenance. Cows provide milk, one of the mainstays of Indian vegetarian cooking, providing necessary proteins. It's also symbolic of the nourishment a child receives from it's mother. The cow is seen as the spiritual mother of all beings.

This past month I had the honour of leading a three-day retreat for older women (aunties) in a rural interior part of Maharashtra called Khodala. The theme of the retreat was 'Creation + Creativity' and over the three days we looked at the correlations between G-d's process of creating the world, and our creative processes that we employ in various parts of our lives. While much of the programming focussed on various forms of artistic creation (including collage, drawing, writing, and dancing), we also talked about intentionality and creativity in our daily lives - in our cooking and cleaning and being with our families.

These aunties that came on the retreat - many of whom are also part of a monthly Rosh Chodesh (New Month) Circle that I run - are very special ladies. They have such strong and beautiful connections to their Judaism. During the retreat many of the women came up to me and asked if we would have time for prayer as a group in the morning, or if they should make sure to say their morning prayers before the session started. It hadn't even crossed my mind that people would want to pray - I'm used to communal prayer at retreats being something forced and unenjoyable for the participants, yet here were all these aunties treating prayer as something obvious and inherent. It wasn't a question for them of whether to do it or not to do it - it's something that's a part of them. These are women who wear saris and may be otherwise indistinguishable from all of the other Indian women, but their dedication to their Judaism is so profound and so deep-rooted that it constantly surprises me.

One of the things that's so exciting about my job and this community is that I get to work across the generations. Many of the aunties who attended the retreat have children and grandchildren who I also get to work with through various programs. One of my close friend's grandmothers is a regular participant in the Rosh Chodesh Circle. She's such a special individual, and has such a vast knowledge of Judaism and Jewish practice. She's a tiny woman, who always wears a colourful sari, and covers her head with a hankerchief in class. On Pesach, instead of buying matzah, she goes to the mill, cleans the grinder, makes her own Pesach flour, and then makes her own matzah. And I got to sit next to her granddaughter at work everyday during Pesach, watching her eat the matzah that her grandmother had made using her self-made Pesach flour. I get to witness Judaism literally being passed down through generations. I get to see women being the source of spiritual nourishment for their families and communities.

Wednesday morning as I was standing at the Panjrapole, admiring the abandoned cows, a man came by. He was wearing middle-class office clothes - a button-down shirt and some casual brown pants. He was carrying a bundle of grass tied together with twine. As he approached the cows, he slipped off his fake-leather office shoes, and stood in silence, feeding the cows, and coming face-to-face with his source.

It was such a beautiful moment to watch - somebody taking the time out of their day to contemplate their connection to something bigger, to their source. And I think it's an important reminder for everybody to take that time, whether it's through feeding cows, or prayer, or intergenerational Jewish practices, or making your own matzah.

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