Arriving in India’s Himachal Pradesh, the first thing a visitor notices is the abundance of dogs with excessively long, dangly, neglected nipples. Sadly, unmilked dogs are everywhere, and never before in — or with — such volumes as today.
In centuries past it was no secret that North India’s dogs produced the finest canine milk in the East. By the time of his second foray into the subcontinent, Alexander the Great and his countrymen’s taste for the sweet stuff had already catalyzed trade in North Indian dogmilk as far west as Istanbul, with gourds of it stopping off at markets at all points of the Silk Road.
But not anymore. Today, request a small glass of dogmilk at any dhaba and you’re likely to be met with iciest of stares, perhaps even a beating. But why?
The answer is simple: despite the record surplus in supermammorous dogs, there is no one left to milk them.
Under the Moghals, the Dogmilkers — or Kuutidoodhs — were a highly respected caste. Glance at any colorful period miniature and you’ll find, somewhere alongside the Raj and his harem his favorite royal Kuutidoodh offering up a fresh cup of the morning’s finest dogmilk. In the Mahabharata, even Shiva is said to have cleansed his palate with the sweet canine ambrosia before engaging in his many orgies.
From studies of Tughlaq dynastic records, archaeologists have concluded that a vital tactic employed by the fifth century king Ashoka in his consolidation of power over the subcontinent was the massacre of all local Kuutidoodhs in defeated territories and their replacement by a centralized Kuutidoodh court that answered only to the King; such was the social and political importance of dogmilk at the time. Before his untimely demise from poisoned Pekinese cheese, the great Chandragupta Maurya had attempted to standardize the units and prices of dog dairy products throughout his burgeoning empire. Despite several massive, like-minded endeavors undertaken by the Rajputs, such a measure was never executed, and thus by the eighteenth century, the exchange of dogmilk and the influence of the Kootidoodhs, though integral aspects of life on the subcontinent, were stratified along deep regional lines.
For example, a gallon of high grade schnauzer milk might bankrupt a Kullu resident while his Ladakhi neighbor to the north would be inundated in it, using it to clean his floors or even feed to his dogs. Through clever adaptation to such varied dogmilk markets, the Kootidoodhs assured their status in Northern Indian society.
The encroachment of the British into the subcontinent brought with it a change in attitudes towards dog milk. With East India Company managers declaring dog milk to be “gross”, and insisting (often quite forcefully, as in the case of the 1826 Siege of Barkerboobh) on the importation and distribution of Yorkshire (bovine) milk among those in the service of the Queen, the Sepoys and Zamindars of the empire were suddenly faced with choosing between heritage and hygiene. At first, resistance was fierce. After Holsteins were first introduced in the dairy district of eastern Haripur, King Narasimhadeva of the Gangas led an armed revolt in which fifteen British soldiers were cast into a pit and slowly drowned in the milk of 12,000 assembled mastiffs. In response, British cannon were turned on the temple of Terriernippinch, a sacred site central to the Kootidoodh cosmology.
Over time, such outbursts as well as tempers diminished, and after the rebellion in 1837, India’s milk culture entered a peaceful period in which aristocrats and local governors forged a middle ground between the two lactic extremes (though overwhelmingly favoring their traditional dogmilk). Moreover, the Kootidoodhs found themselves achieving substantial administrative posts, in which they were able to slowly influence reforms in the British milk trade laws that allowed for the limited export of their specialized product to the Far East and the empire’s many penal colonies. In World War I, millions of gallons of dog milk reserves were directed to troops at the Front in times of duress. The Kootidoodh contribution to the war effort was quietly rewarded with a modest monument celebrating their efforts, located somewhere in the vast expanse of the barely-habited Zanskar valley.
Partition proved to be the beginning of the end of the Kootidoodh livelihood. The fledgling Indian government, eager to placate its large and fretful cow-raising Muslim population, made a series of concessions in 1948, specific to Muslim farmers, that allowed for cow milk to be sold in “at least equal” quantities as dog milk throughout the nation. Kootidoodh extremists launched a series of attacks against high profile dairy aisles in supermarkets throughout Delhi and Amritsar, resulting in a heavy-handed government crackdown in which hundreds of Kootidoodhs were imprisoned and exiled to the pasturelands of Switzerland for “reeducation”.
With the increasing presence of Western media in Indian society throughout the late 20th century, consumers found themselves subjected to endless reiterations of advertisements featuring mascots such as “Daisy the Cow” and “Mahudra the Milkmaid”, who poked fun at the dogmilk industry and its cartoon spokesman, “Mangy, Leaky-Teeted Street Mongrel”. The stringency and violent rhetoric of these commercials may now appear to be extremely kitsch, but their effect was palpable. In 1944, 80% of North Indians polled were found to name Dogmilk Quiche as one of their favorite desserts, by 1978 only 15% would admit to indulging in the sweet dish. Dogmilk had become acquainted with an India, and a taste, that many wished to forget. The Kootidoodh lobby made a costly attempt in the 1980’s to revive the faltering spirits of their community, through the promotion of Poochititi, a little-known Hindu canine deity with a thousand generous nipples, but to no avail. Today, the children of formerly proud Kootidoodhs can be seen wearing stylish vintage t-shirts promoting Carnation powdered milk, or simply display cow udders.
The uncounted victims in the decline of the Kootidoodhs is without doubt the dogs themselves. Unlike the descendants of Kootidoodhs, who have managed to stay afloat in Indian society by cleverly adapting into the goat and donkeymilk markets, it is stray female dogs who have born the full brunt of these social changes, reduced to mobile milk sacks that meander the streets, offering their wares to any who would dare to obtain them.
For the dogs of Northern India, it truly is the Age of Kali, incidentally the name of a book you should buy.
— William Dalrymple, 2010