Social History of Indian Food

The Origins of the Sacred Cow in India

History of Indian food is comprised of many tales and stories about social movements around the foods that are too sacred or taboo. India is the only subcontinent where all of its major religions forbid one kind of meat or another. Several parts of the subcontinent, including southern India, are majority populations of vegetarians.

The Hindus don’t eat beef or pork, the Muslims reject pork, and Jains and Buddhist stay clear of any slaughtered animals...

When Indian Hindus want to provoke the Muslim community in India, all they need to do is send a herd of pigs past a mosque. The Muslim community then retaliates by  “accidentally” driving a herd of cows beside a Hindu shrine. These accidents have lead into murders and riots between the two communities.

The reasons for majority Indian people being vegetarians are as much economic and political as well as religious. It is quite possible that that the sacred cow cult, which has been a feature of Indian life throughout the centuries, began in the Indus Valley.

Looking through the archeological digs, scientists found coins that show pictures of ancient bulls standing behind an incense burning. Interestingly, these bulls were not ones from the land of India, but those belonging to the foreign invaders, the Aryans. (Aryans are an offshoot of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European people who invaded India around 1700 BC). The incense symbolized the living animal behind it with a particular value.

One theory is that the foreign bull on the coins was a symbol of incomers who were assimilating into the Indus Valley civilization. If one assumes that the newcomers were making sure that their cattle survive the new climate, then it would be natural for them to endow the surviving cattle with semi-religious value. This way people would not kill the cattle, allowing them to breed and provide milk, thus bringing a powerful change in culinary traditions and history of Indian food.

As the Aryans spread throughout the subcontinent, they build on the earlier precedent by giving all the cattle the full protection of religious law. Sacred texts like Rig-Veda, which relate to Aryans’ early period in India call for the goat, horse, sheep, buffalo, and only barren cows as food. About 500 years later, in Atharva-veda declared that eating even barren cows meant committing an offense against one’s ancestors.

Throughout the history of Indian food, the cow’s sacredness moved in cycles and at one time, around 700 BC the rules became more relaxed. It was accepted that the cattle could be killed to meet the requirements of hospitality or for ritual sacrifice to the gods and spirits. However, soon the priest became too demanding on sacrificial animals that the drain on farmer’s milk cattle became unbearable.

Hence the Vedic system developed to provoke a strong social reaction and impact on history of Indian food. Two new religious-political systems emerged, Buddhism and Jainism – that believed in the sanctity of all life, including the cow. As a result, a strong advocacy for vegetarianism grew.

History of Indian Food
Basic elements in the Indian food

history of indian food

(An Image of the Puranas)

A picture of the basic elements of Indian diet are given in the Puranas, (‘ancient stories’), a compilation of legend, religious instruction and geographical information from early centuries to present era.

According to these ancient stories, the human world formed a series of concentric circles round Mount Mera, groups of ring-like continents separated from each other by seven oceans...

The ocean surrounding this mystic mountain was composed of salt; the next of jaggeri, a very coarse, sticky, dark brown sugar (introduced to India from New Guinea in Neolithic times); the third of wine; the fourth of ghi (clarified butter); the fifth of milk; the sixth of curd; and the seventh of fresh water.

Of these seven magical oceans, representing the staples of humanity, at least three were of dairy products. Once the cows became sacred animals in history of Indian food, dairy products from them began to be treated more than their face value. Ghi was the religious salvation of the higher castes, members of which were obsessed by ritual pollution. To cleanse food that might have become polluted, it is sprinkled or cooked in ghi, which purifies it.

Food cooked in ghi is called pacca, and it is karmically purified because it is submerged in a cow product. Lesser foods are called kacca. Some Hindus refuse to eat cauliflower because its Hindi name, gobi, closely resembles name for a cow, gopa.


  1. Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. The Free Press, 2003.
  2. Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. Three Rivers Press, 1988.
  3. Montanari, Massimo. Food is Culture. Columbia University Press, 2004.

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