World Milk Day 2024: The Role Of Doodh In Indian Culture
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Milk in India is more than just a drink or a breakfast beverage; it's woven into the fabric of society and is used for rituals across many cultures in different ways, apart from being the main source of nutrition since ancient Indian civilisation.

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), " India is the world’s largest milk producer, with 22 percent of global production, followed by the United States of America, China, Pakistan and Brazil." Cow's milk and its byproducts like curd, butter, ghee, and paneer have been used for thousands of years in this country, which dates back to the days when civilisation first began.

The cow is a sacred animal that is worshipped by Hindus in the country and beyond. And cow's milk is among the main reasons that make the animal sacred for most Indians. Apart from that, one of the main sources of calcium, fat and energy has been cow's milk, whose well-balanced nutritional superiority takes over other animals' milk that is consumed as well, like water buffalo, goat, and camel. 

Tea And Coffee

When the British arrived in India, they introduced us to tea and promoted the growth and production in India. What was once consumed as medicine up in the north-eastern region of India, tea, became a staple beverage when it was brewed with milk. And since the 20th century, the day does not begin without chai or coffee for most households in India.


Ever since civilisation started, it is believed that India was among the first to have prepared the naturally fermented yoghurt called dahi, which is an important aspect of the Indian diet and influences food habits at large. Curd is called by different names across the country. In south India, especially in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra, consuming a portion of curd rice or curd on its own is almost mandatory at the end of every meal, as it is known to be a probiotic that aids digestion and helps manage good gut health. Shrikhand from Maharashtra and mishti doi from Bengal are two popular curd-based desserts that are enjoyed across the country. Freshly churned buttermilk is popularly enjoyed in Punjab and across various other regions of the country as a refreshing drink, especially on hot summer days. It not only cools your body but is also a probiotic that manages your gut health.


Most Indian sweets are made from cow and buffalo's milk and its byproducts like ghee, chena, yoghurt, and cream. Offerings, festivals and celebrations are incomplete in India without sweets made from milk. During the Holi festival, thandai is made using milk as an offering and to distribute for consumption.

Sweets like rasagulla and payas are popular offerings made to the deity in the Lord Jagannath temple of Puri in Odisha. In South Indian temples, pongal is a sweet gruel made with rice, milk and jaggery as an offering to the deities and distributed to people as prasadam. Mathura peda is a milk fudge made as a popular offering at the Mathura temple to Lord Krishna, who was known as the protector of cows and indulged in butter.

Payasam Or Kheer

India's diverse cultures all embrace milk in their traditions, making it a unifying element despite regional and religious differences. Kheer is one dish that is common to all the diverse cultures of India and no festive occasion or festival is complete without this sweet dish. According to historians, it is believed that the name kheer is derived from the Sanskrit word 'ksheera' meaning milk. Across various regions and religions, kheer is prepared differently and is also called by various names, like payas in Odisha, payasam in South India, and payesh in Bengal.

Milk, rice, ghee, sugar or jaggery, cardamom, and dried fruits are the main ingredients of this dish and full-cram milk is the substance that ties this dish together beautifully. They are prepared differently across various regions. For instance, kheer made with rice is commonly known across the country. Kheer is an offering made across many temples in India, like the Konark temple in Odisha and the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, where the payasam is made from rice flakes; temples in Karnataka like Kukke Subrahmanya and Horanadu Annapoorneshwari temple, where payasa is made from milk and lentils called hesaru bele payasa is made as an offering; and more. 

That's not all. Phirni is a variant of kheer that was introduced to India by the Persians. It includes a touch of saffron and rose water, which makes it opulent. Gil-e-firdaus is a variant of payasam that has Nawabi culinary influence and is made from milk and bottle gourd. This variant of kheer is popular in Hyderabad city.

Use Of Milk In Ayurveda

The ancient system of medicine, Ayurveda, employs various dairy products medicinally to boost disease resistance, aid recovery, and support regeneration. These include milk decoctions, medicated butters, and ghees. These preparations help enhance overall health and vitality, making dairy a crucial component of Ayurvedic healing practices.

For instance, Panchamrutham is a concoction made from five ingredients and is considered to be the elixir of life that one must have every day for overall wellbeing. Three of the five ingredients are milk-based. The mixture includes milk, curd, sugar or jaggery, honey and ghee. "This potion strengthens the seven bodily tissues, which we call sapta dhatu. It cools your body, balances the bile secretion, and improves strength, skin health and immunity," says Dr. Neetha Ganesh, an ayurvedic doctor from Bengaluru.

Each ingredient must be added in a balanced proportion to prepare Panchamrutham. Jaggery provides energy to the body and strengthens muscles. Honey improves the blood flow and strengthens immunity. It also keeps the seasonal cold and coughs at bay when consumed once a day. Curd is a good source of calcium, balances bile secretion and aids digestion. Ghee is known to strengthen eyes, heart and skin health. And milk is a rich source of calcium and vitamin D. It helps strengthen the nervous system and improves memory. " However, one must ensure that the milk is that of cows and freshly sourced. Curd must be naturally fermented and ghee must be prepared in the right proportion to be used in panchamrutham for it to be effective," says Dr. Neetha.

Uses Of Milk In Various Religions

In India, milk holds special significance, rooted in Hindu mythology. The legend of "Samudra Manthan" is all about the churning of the ocean of milk, which produced "Amrit,"  which was believed to be the nectar of immortality. Milk is considered purifying and is integral to religious rituals. It plays a vital role from the start of life, being an infant’s first food, to the end, being used in the final rites after death.

Milk is considered sacred in Hinduism and is often used in religious rituals. It's associated with purity and is offered to deities during prayers and festivals. During religious ceremonies, especially in temples, milk is among the other ingredients poured over idols of gods and goddesses in a ritual called "Abhishekam." Ghee is used in ritualistic practices like havan or yagna to fuel the fire, cleanse the aura in the ritual and appease the fire god, 'agni'. Milk is an offering made to the dieties during Hindu festivals like 'Naga Panchami' and Maha Shivaratri. These are some uses of milk amongst many in Hindu culture that make cows and their milk a sacred entity in the way of life.

The Buddhist and Jain cultures in India also consider milk and its products important for life. Buddhists believe that milk is essential to sustain someone who is on the spiritual path. While their diets comprise predominantly plant-based ingredients, milk rice is considered auspicious as an offering and for consumption. Milk rice made from the reduced milk of a thousand cows, freshly cooked rice and topped with honey is believed to be one of the best meals Buddha had eaten before attaining enlightenment. Some sections of Jains believe that milk obtained from cows without harming the animals is worthy of consumption too. 

Milk From Other Sources In India

Apart from cow's milk, which is holy and used almost for everything in India, milk from buffalo, camel, goat, donkey and yak is used for consumption and other purposes like the production of skincare products, etc. Lately, we have seen a rise in the use of plant-based milk and its varieties, like almond milk, coconut milk, barley, soy milk and more. However, the use of plant-based milk has been an age-old practice in India. The state of Kerala has been using coconut milk widely for thousands of years in their sweet and savoury preparations like meat curries, vegetable stews, payasams, etc.

Camel milk is growing in popularity as it might have many health benefits and may be safe for consumption for those with allergies or intolerances towards buffalo or cow's milk. many nomadic communities in the Gujarat and Rajasthan regions rear camels for milking purposes and consume camel milk regularly too. The Raika community of Rajasthan is well known for rearing camels and contributing to the supply of camel milk across the country.

Goat's milk is another healthy drink that is known to cure many skin-related issues and is therefore widely used in skincare products like soaps, lotions, etc. Goat's milk is also used for consumption and sold across the country in a lesser capacity than cow's or buffalo's milk across the nation. Nowadays, in India, the goat's milk is also used to make cheese and other products for consumption.