This paper will examine human-cattle interactions in the Kumaun Hills under British colonial rule to problematize persistent equations between ‘native culture’ and timeless, pristine ‘nature’. It will challenge conventional environmental histories which describe Kumauni life in terms of the constraints of physical geography. Cattle and Kumauni conceptions of animals will thus emerge as central agents of history. Drawing upon recent interventions in the history of animals, this paper will argue that colonial homologies of race and space as well as customary ideas of pollution and purity were simultaneously inscribed upon and written through the body of the cow. It is hoped that this history of human-cattle interactions in the Western Himalayas will bear upon both spatial history as well as contemporary debates about cow politics in South Asia.

Contestation over the sacredness of the cow remains an important issue in modern India, yet an overwhelming focus on communal politics between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ often elides its implications for other marginalized groups. In the Western Himalayas, for instance, the enforced proximity between menstruating women and cows has been ignored. Scholars have tried to debunk the ‘myth of the holy cow’ through careful analyses of the long and uneven career of cows in high Hindu, Sanskrit texts. Their works present a crucial challenge to the essentialist trope of the ‘holy cow’. However, even in such revisionist readings, the cow does not emerge as an agent in the trans-local and transcendent discussion of its sanctity. Through a ‘haptic history’ of human-animal interactions, this paper will argue that the moving, lactating and excreting body of the animal is not just a backdrop but is at the very heart of the dispute over its social and historical significance.

Problematizing the timeless image of the ‘holy cow’ from the standpoint of localized human-cattle interactions requires a precise definition of the ‘local’ and its representativeness with respect to the rest of the subcontinent. Even though the official construction of locality in Kumaun separated the region from the plains and the high mountain passes, a cursory attentiveness to the movements of cattle immediately muddies such linear divisions of highland/lowland enforced by colonial environmental rationales. By taking the official category of ‘hill cattle’ as its subject of analysis, this paper will question the manner in which locality was mapped onto bovines. Instead it will look beyond state space to consider cows as participants in place-making.