Ayub Khan and his wife Asiya, both in their 50s, have just finished their sehri (pre-dawn meal) and are preparing for fajr namaaz (morning prayer). In another hour, they will be at work. Their day begins at 5 every morning and the first four hours are spent cleaning the sheds and feeding the cows. They return home to rest for some time and begin the whole process again by 3pm. In between, the two looks after their children and household chores.
Ayub and Asiya are caretakers at a cattle shelter in Kishangarh which houses 1,300 cows and has been around for 128 years. Gaushala Mehrauli Dehat is probably the largest of its kind in the city — run by villagers and where old, blind or disabled animals take refuge. Owners bring their cows here once these are of no use to them.
“People abandon their animals when they are no longer useful. A cow is treated well only till it gives milk, after that it is abandoned. We keep these deserted cattle in the shelter and take care of them,” says Ayub. The gaushala, spread across 3.25 acres, is located adjacent to a 250-year-old temple complex in the village. All expenses of the shelter are managed through donations obtained from volunteers and devotees from 50 villages located in and around south Delhi. Often devotees come here to seek blessings of the cows and donate funds.
The couple has been looking after the cows for more than a decade now. A day in their life includes feeding the cows and washing and cleaning the sheds twice a day. They do all this with ease; however, feeding a blind or a disabled cow, they say, is still a difficult task.
“I have been taking care of cows for a long time. I have grown up with cows and I look after their food and medical needs. Even as a child, I could easily make out if a cow was a sick,” says Asiya, who is from a family of farmers in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Ayub and Asiya were married at a young age and their search for better job opportunities brought them to Delhi. At Kishangarh’s gaushala, the couple found a full-time job and a free one-room quarter to live in. They now have three daughters and two sons and are paid Rs 20,000 per month for their services.
Ayub points out that they have lived peacefully and remained untouched by the controversies surrounding cow slaughter in the past few years. “Murders over rumours of eating or keeping beef are politically motivated and hyped by the media. Despite being Muslims, we can never think of hurting cows. We have raised cows throughout our lives. My wife and I have been living inside the cow shelter without any problems,” he says.
As Ayub and Asiya talk to us, some of the bovines make their way out of the enclosure. The couple is, however, unalarmed. “Cows have a strong memory. They know where the gaushala is. Nobody disturbs them, but they always come back to the shelter when they start missing their caretakers,” Asiya says with a smile.
For their children, one of the key perks of living at the shelter is free and unlimited supply of fresh milk. Ayub commands respect in the neighbourhood and the family says they are welcomed at social events and festivals like Holi, Diwali and Phoolwalon ki Sair.
Besides looking after the cows the family also helps and guides visitors. “Some people are scared of cows’ horns. So, I stand beside them to ensure they don’t feel afraid while approaching the cow,” says Asiya. She is helped by her pet dog, Julie, who follows her everywhere and comes to her aid if cows turn unmanageable. “Sometimes blind cows go astray and feel lost. So Julie goes to them, barks and guides them back inside the shelter. It is also fond of the animals and is fiercely protective. It doesn’t let stray dogs come near the cows,” said Asiya.
The management of the gaushala takes pride in the present arrangement at the shelter. “Communities belonging to all religions come here to seek the blessings of the cows. The way Asiya and Ayub look after the cows and sheds and handle the cattle is an example of communal harmony in Kishangarh,” said Masoodpur-based Sunder Malik, the secretary of Gaushala Mehrauli Dehat.
History of Gaushala
Praising the couple for their dedication, Malik recalls how the Capital’s oldest cow shelter was started. He says that five villagers, each from a different area, came together to start the shelter in Kishangarh. The space where the gaushala stands today was a large open grazing land. Old-timers recall that till 1900s people from Mehrauli would bring their cattle for grazing here.
“The founding members were from Mohammadpur, Lado Sarai, Mehrauli, Munirka and Jasaur Kheri (Haryana). The first boundary wall of the shelter was made of loose rocks. Later, huts were built for cows, which were further converted into small sheds,” said Munirka-based Prem Singh Tokas, the pradhan of Gaushala Mehrauli Dehat.
Till 1980s, a bull cart with iron wheels was used to transport fodder. It was later replaced by a tractor. Over the years, the shelter has raised resources to look after the abandoned cows. But its old-world charm remains intact. In the centre of the gaushala are two trees — peepal and banyan — which are more than 100 years old. A circular, hollow space has been created around these trees to store drinking water for the cows.
“Despite the advances in technology, some things will never change. The two trees are as old as the gaushala, the temple is much older. To maintain security, CCTV cameras have been installed at different locations inside the shelter,” said Chaudhary Sukhbir Singh, who has been managing the shelter for 17 years. The Munirka resident reaches the shelter early in the morning each day. “I want to dedicate my remaining life to serving old cows,” says the retired Delhi Transportation Corporation (DTC) officer.
To raise funds for the shelter, an yearly event called Saang is organised in February which is attended by hundreds. Folk artists perform in the shelter complex and religious stories and folk tales are depicted through songs and dance. People from different religions visit and donate at the cow shelter.
Each financial record is maintained by the staff, which mostly comprises the villagers.