Jaani, the Sacred Buffalo of Nanda Gaoli Community - Biocultural Diversity of Nanda Gaoli Pastoralist Community of Maharashtra

- Ajinkya Shahane , Prafulla Kalokar , Sajal Kulkarni and Sushma Iyengar
Women Nandgaoli Herder at Talegao Raghuji. Tehsil Seloo Dist Wardha
Babanrao Yeole at Talegao Raghuji milking his Jaani buffalo

Nanda Gaoli, a traditional semi-nomadic pastoralist community of the Indian state of Maharashtra rear the beautiful Nagpuri buffalo which they refer fondly as the Gaolao buffalo. The Nagpuri buffalo breed do not produce as much milk as the Murrah or Jaffarabadi buffalo breeds. However, they need not be fed as much as the cross breeds and are easy to maintain with very little inputs. The Nanda Gaoli community has many unique and interesting traditions and customs. In addition to the many rituals and festivals that are similar to the mainstream society, a few are found to be observed only by the Nanda Gaoli community. For instance, the Bhaladev festival, the festival of grass, grasslands, and grazing cattle in the forests (Kalokar and Siripurapu, 2020) and the practice of devoting cattle or buffalo to God as the sacred animal. A buffalo that is devoted to the God is considered holy and fondly addressed by the Nanda Gaoli people as “Jaani”.

Young boy with his buffalo at Melghat


Nanda Gaoli people identify individual buffaloes of their herd by their physical appearance and marks on their bodies. For instance, Bhondi (white colour from forehead to nose), Shingari (longer horns than others did), Chandi (white spot on forehead), etc. However, one of the special buffaloes among them all is the Jaani buffalo. The word Jaani translates as the buffalo that is devoted to God right when it was a calf by the owner. The term holy cow or a sacred bull is familiar to many of us but a sacred buffalo devoted to God may sound unfamiliar to many. However, the practice of Jaani (sacred buffalo) is a very common practice among the Nanda Gaoli community and their counterparts, the Toda pastoralist community inhabiting the Niligiris of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (Gilon, 2020).


Earlier, every Nanda Gaoli family had at least two Khandi (One Khandi = 20) buffaloes at their home. Traditionally buffaloes are always kept in the open 24*7 and maintained under semi-nomadic pastoral system. Buffalo calves are born during the rainy season and often calves fall sick during the early days of their life and the mortality rate was usually very high. It would not have made any difference if a male calf dies but if the demise of a female calf means a huge financial loss to the herder. The herder does his best to treat and save the female calves and buffaloes but in case of failure of all the efforts the herder devotes one of the sick calves to god as a Jaani. A Jaani buffalo is loved and taken care of by everyone in the family. 

Herd of buffalo at Gawilgadh fort Melghat Dist Amravati State Maharastra

However, there are a few unwritten traditional rules applied for selection of a Jaani buffalo. For instance, if five female buffalos fall sick at once, any one of them would be devoted as a Jaani. A Jaani buffalo should have a good, well-built, proportionate body with a shiny healthy skin, its mother should be yielding high amount of milk than the rest of the herd, etc. Once devoted as a Jaani, no medical health care is provided to it but someone from the family would keep an eye until it recovers fully. When they devote a Jaani, the owner takes an oath to God that if it survives, they would neither sell it nor its milk. 


As the sale of milk of a Jaani buffalo is traditionally forbidden, her calves get as much milk as they want, and the rest would be used for domestic consumption or given to anyone for free, but they would never sell its milk. Since Jaani buffalo calves get adequate amount of milk, they are usually found to be more agile and physically better in shape than the other calves of the herd. Calves of Jaani buffalo cannot be sold but their milk can be sold or their male or female calves can be given away to someone for free. In the past, there was a belief that the calf of a Jaani buffalo yields more milk, so calves of Janni buffaloes are usually given as a wedding present to daughters at their wedding. This traditional custom may have been adopted for the survival of good quality animals and this custom can be observed not only among the Nanda Gaoli community but also other traditional pastoralist communities of the sub-continent. For instance, Nanda Gaoli of Melghat call it as ‘Jana’, Mathura Laman of Umarkhed call it as ‘Jaani’ and Bharwad (Gir Cow) of Gujarat call it as ‘Janadi’.


Herder at Talegav Raghuji
Ramaji Jograna (Bharwad) with his herd.

Traditionally, the Nanda Gaoli community inhabiting Wardha district of Maharashtra is famous for rearing the Gaolao cattle and their milk. However, most of them bemoan that finding a purebred Gaolao cattle is getting harder and harder by the day. At present, very few purebred cattle are left in the area. The Nanda Gaoli people say that Gaolao cows yield less milk compared to the other milch cattle breeds, however, they do not feed as much and are highly resistant to many common livestock diseases. Generally, livestock keepers, especially those who keep cattle/buffalo for milch purpose feel happy on the birth of a female calf, but the Nanda Gaoli people does the otherwise. They usually feel happy when a male calf is born as the price of a bull is relatively higher than milch cow. The hardy male calves are sold as oxen to farmers for draught power purpose and Gaolao oxen are favourite among the local farmers.  As the Gaolao cattle yield less milk the Nanda Gaoli people rear the Nagpuri buffalo to fuel their milk-based economy and household income. It is here the role of Nagpuri buffalo and the practice of Jaani assumes prominence among the Nanda Gaoli community.  

Gir cow Herd at Nagpur

Edited by: Kanna K. Siripurapu, WASSAN, Hyderabad, Telangana.

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