The Bovine Ilk

Pokhara, Nepal

Nandi and stairs

Nandi outside a temple in Thahiti Tole

Kathmandu, Nepal

It is illegal to kill a cow in Nepal: offenders can expect a two-year prison term as punishment for their crime.

While Nepali sacred cows tend not to be as gaily decorated as their cousins in India, they are discreetly ubiquitous, loitering in the shade of roadside trees and leaving hoofprints in fresh cement as well as other unmistakable signs of their presence. Their special status renders them placid and unflappable. It also means that they have regrettably little road sense, and the onus is on Nepali drivers to keep a sharp eye out so as not to turn them into hamburger. On the other hand, considering the state of the roads and the number of other road users, it's probably no bad thing to have a population of cows acting as ambulatory speed bumps.

The range of bovines on display is remarkable, running from smaller models about the size of a large pony all the way up to cows the size of, well, cows. They come in various shades of brown or dun or black or caramel, and I even saw one that looked like a rather rough-edged Friesian.

Rounding out the bovine selection, there are also, of course, water buffalo (which are not sacred), most often to be seen lolling contentedly in a muddy wallow. One half-submerged pair we saw had been colonized by a small platoon of frogs, who seemed to consider the buffalo as nothing more than a kind of rather coarse-haired and slightly restive rock.

They are also present in symbolic form. Shrines sacred to Shiva will have a carved stone statue of the bull Nandi, facing inwards towards the shrine. At older shrines, the statue may be worn away to a mere hump, smeared with orange tika paste and surrounded by grains of offertory rice, ringed by a battered fringe of brass lamp holders blackened by the soot of past votives.

Sometimes the creature may be both actual and symbolic. In Kathmandu's Durbar Square, a young black bull was tethered alongside a pagoda, keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings in the square. When it started to rain, he retreated under the eaves of the temple, tucking his legs beneath him and reproducing the classic Nandi pose so flawlessly that I wondered how long it would be before someone came along to daub him with orange paste and throw rice at him.