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What began as a mere curiosity to know more about indigenous cattle breeds of India led to Preetha Ramanathan and her husband, Manikandan Nagarajan, successfully establishing their very own brand, 'Ishta Panchagavya.'

The story of Preetha and Manikandan - two skilled IT professionals residing in Chennai, Tamil Nadu -  bringing home a cow and her calf as pets, which later inspired them to create a brand with a purpose, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

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Preetha & Manikandan - Manure Marvel

'Ishta Panchagavya' is a sincere effort to conserve native cattle breeds while raising awareness about the importance of such conservation. It is also a humane effort to save non-milking cattle from being disposed of or slaughtered by rescuing and allowing them to peacefully live out their natural lives in a cow sanctuary and by educating local communities and farmers - through a lead-by-example approach - about economic opportunities through activities like selling dung-based products while ensuring ethical treatment of the cattle.

For the uninitiated, cow dung has been used in several parts of the world for centuries as a valuable and sustainable resource, serving a variety of purposes - from organic fertilizer and cooking fuel to the production of biogas, traditional medicines, and products like paper, pottery, and insect repellents. In India, particularly, the usage of cow dung holds a deep-rooted cultural and agricultural significance.

Art Knowledge: Please talk about the inception of Ishta Panchagavya. How did it all begin?

Preetha Ramanathan: Our journey began in 2017 during the 'Jalikattu' protests in Tamil Nadu. All the news and talks concerning the protests interested us in learning more about India’s rich diversity of indigenous cattle breeds. In that process, my husband, driven by his spiritual conviction, remained resolute about bringing home a cow and her newborn calf, knowing it would also bring joy to our young daughter who always wanted a pet. Once the cow and calf were home, we wanted to care for the new members of our family in the best way possible. However, since we didn’t have sufficient knowledge on how to do that, we interacted with local farmers to better understand the best caregiving practices. During this time, we noticed how most local communities’ practices were highly unethical. Certain that we wanted to attend to our cattle with the utmost compassion, we travelled to learn from Gaushalas (cow shelters) that strictly adhered to animal welfare standards in caring for their cattle abandoned by families and farmers. A distinct aspect our visits highlighted, common to all the Gaushalas, was that they were financially bleeding; insufficient funds posed significant challenges in providing adequate care for the animals. After having understood the core problem and extensively informing myself on the subject, I began reaching out to local farmers to educate them about the sustainable income they could incur by making a wide range of products using cow dung alone, which will, in turn, save the animals from being sold for slaughter or discarded as a commodity. This endeavor was countered with questions like “Who’d buy these products?” and “It’s easier said than done, isn’t it?” At this point, it dawned on me that I must first educate the urban crowd about this issue to create a demand for such products for supply to follow. My husband and I then decided to practice what we preached and established Ishta Panchagavya from the ground up.

Art Knowledge: You mentioned that you understood the core problem before educating the farmers on using cow dung to earn a living. What was that problem?

Preetha Ramanathan: You should first know that cattle breeds are broadly categorized into milch breeds (high-yielding dairy breeds) and draught/draft breeds (work breeds). Indigenous dairy breeds originate from states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, which also strictly prohibit cow slaughter - - these reasons contribute to cows in the milch category being in large numbers there. Now, moving down south to Tamil Nadu, every district has its own breed that originated from the place possessing unique features and characteristics; most of these breeds are nearing extinction because they fall in the non-milch category. The problem I was referring to earlier is the need for copious amounts of milk today compared to the past when cow dung was more resourceful than cow milk for homes with cattle. From using dung cakes as cooking fuel to using cow-dung ash to maintain oral hygiene and wash utensils, cows (male and female) were highly beneficial to humans. Draught cattle breeds also helped plow the fields, carry goods, and perform other agricultural labour. Today, with everyone adopting a modern lifestyle that demands more cow milk and machines replacing draught animals, cattle that don’t yield milk are a liability to farmers. So, native cows that don’t produce "ideal" milk yields and bulls are abandoned or sold to slaughterhouses for money, and cross-breeds that produce more milk are opted for instead. Male calves are separated from their mothers when they’re as young as ten days old and dumped on the streets to fend for themselves or transported to be killed. In the earlier times, people had bulls in their homes to naturally impregnate the cows. Today, people are artificially inseminating cows to facilitate breeding. This practice is becoming more common because of the low maintenance cost; artificial insemination costs only about Rs.300 a year compared to raising a bull, which would cost Rs.100 to Rs.200 daily. These acts, apart from the persistent cruelty, lead to either the extinction of native breeds or the overcrowding of cattle shelters - that rescue and care for these innocent lives - to the point of financial distress that only results in the suffering of the animals.

Manikandan caring for the cows - Manure Marvel

Art Knowledge: Please share more details about Ishta Panchagavya with our readers.

Preetha Ramanathan: Panchagavya is a traditional Indian mixture made from five products derived from cows, which are considered sacred in Hinduism. The term "Panchagavya" is derived from two Sanskrit words: “pancha,” meaning "five," and "gavya," meaning "cow”; it mainly consists of cow dung, cow urine, cow milk, curd, and ghee (clarified butter). Panchagavya holds immense significance in Ayurvedic medicine in India.

The primary purpose of building this brand was to give it our all to change the unfortunate plight of the animals. Firstly, we aimed to develop a profitable business model offering dung-based products to demonstrate to communities and farmers who owned cattle to view their livestock’s dung as a valuable resource rather than waste and generate a steady income using it, mutually benefiting themselves and their cattle. Secondly, the distressing issue of cattle abuse for meat and dairy  (and leather) motivated us to establish a cow sanctuary close to the city limits in Chennai; we nurture nearly a hundred cows and bulls (twenty different breeds) on a one-and-a-half acre rented land. Each animal is equally cared for in our shelter till their last breath and given a respectful burial after their passing. Simultaneously, our attempts to educate the urban sector about this topic are ongoing. In fact, we rented this land to keep the urban population well-connected with this cause and allow children and adults alike to interact (and empathize) easily with these beautiful animals. Uploading our content on YouTube, displaying our products at trade shows, supporting other similar brands, and conversing with YouTubers on their channel include our attempts to spread the word. 

While we’ve registered the cow shelter as an NGO and a trust that uses all monetary donations from our volunteers and the general public for quality cattle feed and the well-being of the cattle, Ishta Panchagavya is registered as a business entity. Our business model is a 4-point agenda: 1) By using our products, one not only contributes to a worthy cause but also practices a sustainable and healthy lifestyle; 2) Since dung is a natural byproduct of cattle, it is biodegradable, making our products eco-friendly; 3) It shows farmers that they can make a living through this approach; 4) Innocent lives are saved from ruthless slaughtering and abandonment, and indigenous cattle breeds are conserved. 

We have also employed twelve women in our factory who handle manufacturing in an attempt to empower women to be financially independent.

The manufacturing staff at Ishta Panchagavya - Manure Marvel

The Ishta Panchagavya store carries an array of dung-based products like fertilizers, dung cakes, dhoop incense sticks, insect repellents, earthen lamps, bathing soap powder, vibhuti (sacred ash), panchagavya-based items, and more; we are now working on manufacturing cow-dung-based paint, bricks, and paper. We also occasionally sell pure ghee, decadent milk sweets, and milk soaps made from milk ethically sourced from cows. How this works is that if a cow yields any excess milk - which is rare and limited because a cow’s milk is only meant for its calf, and we never exploit a cow to obtain milk - we use it to make these specialty items. Our hope in doing this is that farmers take note of it and get motivated not to ditch cows that yield small quantities of milk or practice unethical methods to make them produce more milk because selling ten milk soaps or a few milk-sweet boxes made out of, say, only 1 litre of milk would be more profitable than selling that same amount of milk as is in the market.

Products from cow dung - Manure Marvel

Art Knowledge: It sounds like you and your husband have found your calling. Would you agree?

Preetha Ramanathan: Definitely! The first cow and calf we brought home - - we had briefly interacted with the farmer who had her during an impromptu visit to my sister’s. A few days later, my husband, out of nowhere, asked me if the cow we saw the previous week would’ve given birth to her calf by now. Not paying much attention to his question, I went about my day, only to receive a phone call from the same farmer later in the evening telling me that the cow had given birth and wanted to know if we were interested in taking them home - this felt like destiny to us. Today, as one happy family, we are dedicated to this cause together!

Our daughter, Netravathi, who is now 16 years old, started an initiative when she was 12 called 'Kannukutti,' which in the Tamil language means 'calf.' This initiative welcomes children to our cow shelter to learn more about the animals and their different breeds, interact and play with the calves, feed them, cuddle them, and take pictures with them, amongst other things; here, the objective is to educate and encourage the younger generation to further the worthy cause. We have a number of children and young adults who volunteer at the shelter. Many others, of all age groups, celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions with the cattle by bringing treats and in-kind donations for the animals.

Netravathi conducting the 'Kannukutti' event - Manure Marvel

Despite having several efficient caretakers at our shelter, my husband quit his IT job to attend to our cattle’s health and needs personally. I handle the business aspect of Ishta Panchagavya alongside working as a full-time IT professional. I also participate in several training programs and get certified in those fields to better equip myself as an entrepreneur manufacturing an extensive range of organic, dung-based products.

We frequently travel to different villages in Tamil Nadu in search of rare cattle breeds on the verge of extinction to bring to our shelter while also interacting with and educating the farmers and local communities about the importance of conserving native breeds, financial opportunities, and ethical treatment of their cattle. This effort has gained us many trustworthy volunteers across the state who contact us with information about cattle belonging to rare indigenous breeds getting sold to slaughterhouses, which we rescue and care for in our Gaushala. From 2017 to 2020, I tavelled to various parts of Tamil Nadu to attend training programs on cattle breeds, entrepreneurship, and manufacturing. During these travels, too, I met with farmers and local families to impart the knowledge I had gained.

We began manufacturing and selling our products in the year 2020. Our manufacturing unit with all the machinery is a home we’ve rented in the city; we have an efficient team that works hard to create the quality products we sell. Regarding the financing of our business, which includes all the training programs and travel I take part in -  since we are not yet profitable, a part of the business expenditure comes from the revenue we make from the items we sell, and the rest from my salary and our savings.

Art Knowledge: What motivates you and your husband to continue this incredible work with steadfast commitment? Also, what is the future you envision for Ishta Panchagavya?

Preetha Ramanathan: Honestly, this hasn’t been the easiest journey for us. Despite knowing we had a steep hill to climb to successfully reach our goal of helping as many cattle as possible, some of our challenges were so daunting and unprecedented that they made us want to give up many times. However, our love for these animals has kept us committed to this path. For my husband, especially, the unadulterated innocence and kindness he sees in these animals’ eyes renders all the obstacles insignificant. Our resolve to protect these animals from merciless mistreatment is another reason that causes us to stay resilient through difficulties and persevere with our efforts.

These animals truly are put through extreme suffering. Cows produce milk only when they give birth to feed their babies, just like all mammals, including humans; therefore, it is undeniable that anyone selling milk commercially is using unethical practices to obtain large amounts of milk. Cows are incredibly maternal and suffer greatly when their babies are separated from them immediately after birth. For a calf, the grief of being separated from its mother also has a severe and damaging impact on its immune system, causing increased susceptibility to infections and diseases. The practice of artificially inseminating cows in countries like India is repeatedly done by inexperienced farmers using non-sterile equipment, subjecting the cows to immense pain and trauma. Dairy farms not only raise cows in dismal conditions, forcing them to live a life of chronic discomfort and distress, but also have a set benchmark for how much milk each cow must produce; any cow (including the sick and old) that doesn’t meet the requirement is tagged unprofitable and sold to slaughterhouses. Also, since cow slaughter is illegal in many Indian states, "unprofitable" cows are dumped on the streets or left to starve to death. In other instances, they are crammed in trucks that travel long distances to other states that legally permit slaughter to process their meat. This journey is so gruelling, with no rest, break, food, or room to sit for many days at a stretch, that several cattle reach lifeless at the destination. We see so many stray cows in India today because the urban population now occupies the government-allocated land for cow grazing, leaving no designated space for these animals to consume natural, fresh, nutritious forage directly. Recent studies show that abandoned cows in our country have more than 40kg of plastic waste in their stomachs because the lack of care leaves them no choice but to eat whatever they can find, which is sadly mostly garbage. There are an estimated five million stray cows in India today. In the meat industry, hundreds of cows (male and female) and calves are horrifically killed daily. It’s not only about how many such animals are slaughtered daily but also the unbearable torture continuously inflicted upon them while raising them.

Our goal is to raise awareness about the ill-treatment, overexploitation, habitat loss, and extinction of native breeds to remind people of the ethical and environmental responsibilities they bear as a society. Urbanization, unfortunately, has led to a growing disconnect between urban dwellers and the painful realities of cattle farming. By bridging this gap in knowledge, we can inspire urban populations to make more informed choices, support sustainable practices, and advocate for the welfare and conservation of cattle, ultimately contributing to a more harmonious and responsible coexistence with these beautiful animals.

We also want to expose the urban population to the wide range of organic, dung-based products in the market. The demand-driven supply response is the fundamentals of economics- as more consumers and businesses realize the numerous benefits of dung-based organic products such as fertilizers, biogas, construction materials, paper, earthen lamps, and other eco-friendly items, the incentive to produce and supply such products will become more apparent, prompting more farmers to choose the sustainable and compassionate route.

Giving the animals the love and care they deserve - Manure Marvel

Art Knowledge: Can you please list all the training programs you’ve completed so far?

Preetha Ramanathan: Sure.

  1. Organic fertilizers making - Nammalvar Ecological Foundation
  2. Pooja/Prayer items making - Surabhi Gaushala Salem
  3. Home-care products making - Shyam Gaushala, Satara
  4. Panchagavya medicines making - Panchagavya Vidhyapeetham, Kanchipuram 
  5. Idols and gift items making - Swanand Govigyan Kendra, Nagpur
  6. Cow-dung-based paint making - Kumarappa National Handmade Paper Institute
  7. Cow-dung-based paper making - Kumarappa National Handmade Paper Institute

I am now working with researchers from multiple renowned universities, i.e., Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore; Karpagam University, Coimbatore; and Satyabama University, Chennai, to test (and improve) the quality of all our products. The team at Satyabama University recently completed testing our organic fertilizer, and the results were remarkable, impressing international researchers at the university, too.

Art Knowledge: Before we conclude this interview, is there anything else you want to say?

Preetha Ramanathan: The brutality of livestock farming is no longer a mystery to anyone - countless articles, videos, and documentaries reveal the atrocities forced upon innocent lives; numerous organizations, too, advocate for ending the needless suffering and killing of animals. Many people who consume dairy and meat refrain from watching videos/documentaries explicitly showing the barbarity of the dairy and meat industry because the visuals are that gory and disturbing. I want to say then that if something is so unbearable for someone only to watch, can you fathom how excruciatingly horrific it must be for innocent, defenseless animals when they're forced to experience those gory and disturbing atrocities physically?!

Something to think about seriously.

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than Black people were made for Whites or women for men.” - Alice Walker.

~ Article by Deepika Kamalesh for Art.Knowledge

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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