A Short History of Dairy in India

Milk and milk-products have been a part of society for most of human history. Regional cuisines from all across the country use dairy to create a variety of dishes for all sorts of occasions. Chai and coffee are integral parts of our nation’s morning and evening routines. How did we come to consume a fluid that is from another animal in such large quantities? How did this grow into the huge industry that it is today?


1700 BCE


Dairy has been in use since prehistoric times. In India, the presence of remnants of cows and goats in excavation sites suggest that dairy may have been in use at least since the Harappan Civilization (3300–1300 BCE). The first written mention of milk and dairy products in the subcontinent is found in the Rigveda which might have been written in around 1700 BCE. The entry counted foods that are still prominent in the Indian diet today such as curd, butter, buttermilk, and ghee. 


1000–1500 CE

Dairy-production was still in its nascent stages around this time as the distribution was restricted by socioeconomic status, geographical availability, and cultural preferences. For example, records show that some tribal folk considered dairy to be bad for their bodies; their consumption of dairy was nil. However, it was still very popular among the ruling classes in kingdoms, as something of a luxury drink. In the medieval period (1000–1500 CE), travellers accounts such as the Chinese monk Huan Tsang mention milk and milk products playing a prominent role in the feasts thrown by royalty. 

However, in time, it grew into a food that was consumed across society regardless of which social group was ruling the country (just think of all the dishes associated with different festivals across communities and the use of dairy in them as an ingredient). 


1600–20th Century

Around the time that the British arrived to begin their colonial rule, dairy production had become less sporadic and had spread across the nation. By this time, local unorganised cottage industries emerged across towns and villages. We were also introduced to a beverage that would arguably change our daily-routines forever. Tea was consumed for medicinal purposes by tribes in north-east India, and was never considered the beverage that it is today. The East India Company, hoping to overcome the monopoly on tea-trade held by the Chinese, pushed tea-production in India as much as they could. The advent of tea had begun. Till today, chai is something that cuts across communities as the one thing to have in the morning and evening, or whenever your heart desires it. This, along with coffee, made the consumption of milk in different beverages even more common in the country. 


1970

This year marked the beginning of a government program that would change the face of dairy production in India and our dependence on it. ‘Operation Flood’ or the ‘White Revolution’ was the creation of a system of dairy production that included dairy farmers all across the country. The government saw the dairy industry as a means of both boosting employment opportunity and to improve people’s access to nutrition. The programme saw a bridging of the gap between urban areas that might have higher demand but lower supply, and rural family-owned dairy producers. 


2000s

Plant-based milks began to emerge to cater to a growing vegan movement and the needs of those who could not consume dairy. In recent years a new concern has been added to the list—the sustainability of the dairy industry. The push to provide dairy to every member of society has placed stress on sections of the chain that have been overlooked in the quest for growth. On the one hand, the lives of the cows that produce milk have declined due to inexperience and lack of knowledge. On the other hand, the poor quality of life provided to these animals causes illness (to the non-human animal and us in the form of cross-species transmission) and poor (and possibly harmful) milk production. These are surely unhappy things to dwell on. However, by reducing the amount of dairy we consume, or quitting it completely, we can help the situation just a little bit. 


2017

Goodmylk locates itself within this history as a brand dedicated to helping people make that switch (partial or complete) to a plant-based diet. We love animals and the planet we share with them, and we are trying our best to make it easier for everyone to care and contribute to a more sustainable future. 


This information is derived from the book ‘Cultures of Milk’  by Andrea S. Wiley [2014].