Milk is something special in India
It is the world's largest producer of milk and also the largest consumer. And that's for a good reason. In India, milk is not just the morning glass you drink before you sprint out of the house. Its uses go far beyond the dietary and nutritional.
By the end of 2014, India was producing 140 million metric tons of milk per year. That's roughly 50 percent more than the United States. The U.S. is the second-biggest producer of milk.
Milk's special importance in India goes back to Hindu mythology. It includes the legend of the Samudra manthan and the churning of the ocean that brought forth the drink of immortality. That drink is the amrit.
It also includes the goddess Kamdhenu, which revealed itself as a wish-granting divine cow. Hindus consider cows to be sacred embodiments of Kamdhenu. They make up 81 percent of India's 1.3 billion people.
Krishna worshippers have special affection for cows. The Hindu god's role as a cowherd. Stories about his love of butter are legendary. He is lovingly called "Makhan chor," or butter thief.
Hindus use milk and its products for religious purposes because it is believed to have purifying qualities. Ghee is clarified butter and it is used in lamps for rituals. Milk is used to bathe Hindu idols on special occasions. Sweets made from milk or ghee are used as offerings to gods. It accompanies so much of Hindu life. It is included in rituals from an infant's first food to the last rituals after death.
Milk also goes beyond religion: Ghee spread on flatbread can be a special treat for the poor; buttermilk is a popular summer drink to soothe the stomach. If you are in India, you cannot escape calorie-filled sweets made with milk. Another thing common across this large and diverse country is the morning cup of milky tea. Tiny tea stalls start their businesses early, with migrant laborers normally the first customers.
The dairy industry became the force it is today because of major changes decades ago. Amul is a co-operative dairy that was born in 1946 out of a revolt by milk producers against unfair trade practices. It now has 3.37 million members. Amul was a model for Operation Flood, a nationwide campaign to increase milk production that began in 1970.
Many dairy operations are quite small. In a rural corner of India's northeastern Indian state of Assam, 24-year-old Srimoti Mandal milks her three cows in the early morning. She gets an average of about 6 liters per day and selling it for about $3.50. With her husband unable to work because of asthma, she depends on the milk to support her family of four. The family includes two young children.
In a neighboring village, a bent Pronoti Devi, 67, supplies milk from her three cows daily to a tea shop.
At 4:30 a.m., the New Delhi train station is filled with milkmen from nearby towns who arrive carrying cans of milk that they deliver to neighborhoods across the capital. Most were up hours before the sun's first rays. Some will make a second trip before the day ends. And then they will return to feed the cattle that in turn help feed their families.