A cure for cancer – or just a very political animal?

The Go-vigyan Kendra institute in India claims to harness the medicinal powers of cows for human benefit. But, asks Andrew Buncombe, what are its real motives?

In a stinking, smoking room in which large metal cauldrons spat and sizzled atop wood-fuelled fires, Dr Nandini Bhojraj pointed with pride to four plastic buckets placed on the floor. One, she declared, contained cow's milk, another cow's urine, a third "dung juice" created by soaking cow excrement in water, while into the last had been poured clarified butter, or ghee.

The purpose of the witches' kitchen-like set-up was to heat and combine all four to create a wonder drug for humans. "It will cure 99 per cent of all diseases," Dr Bhojraj declared. For more than a decade, she and a team of fellow enthusiasts and activists at the Go-vigyan Kendra institute and farm in central India have been quietly researching the medicinal and health-boosting qualities of the Indian cow.

Using principles they say come from both ancient medicine or ayurveda and Hindu texts, they have created a range of items based on cowpathy, or the five traditional cow products – milk, urine, dung, butter and ghee.

There is shampoo to prevent dandruff, mosquito repellent, incense, tooth-whitening powder manufactured from dung charcoal as well as the more obvious fertiliser and insecticide. At one point, a sister farm in the north of India even had plans to produce a soft drink from cow's urine. But earlier this summer, the establishment of 280 cows and 50 staff set amid the thick jungle that is home to groups of langur monkeys, captured the headlines when it announced it had obtained patents in the US and China for another distilled urine product, marketed as Gomutra Ark, that it claimed could help cure cancer and several other serious conditions.

While, by itself, obtaining a patent is no proof of anything, its boasts were supported by the government-funded National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). At a press conference one of its senior officials told reporters: "Many patients, some of them terminally ill with diseases like cancer, have come to the Go-vigyan Kendra for treatment and have claimed to have benefited from Gomutra Ark." The institute responsible for producing this drug is located about 40 miles east of Nagpur, a city of 2.5m people that sits at the geographic centre of India.

In addition to the cowsheds where workers from nearby villages gather dung and urine, there are several rather scruffy buildings that serve as laboratories, workshops and offices. There is also a hostel for children who attend a local school. The establishment was set up 15 years ago with money and support from a controversial Hindu nationalist organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), but officials say the centre is independent because it is now funded solely by the sale of its products and donations.

Yet its aims – research into the five cow products ("panchagavya" in Sanskrit) and the promotion of the cow as being central to human existence – remain the same. "We initially came to look at the Indian lifestyle with the focus on the village and the cow. It all depends on cows. We want to look at how we can help put the cow at the centre," explained Suresh Dawle, the institute's secretary. "India's system depends on the village and the village depends on the cow – to fertilise the land, for milk, urine for pesticide. If the cow is at the centre then the economy will grow." Asked if the institute was also proselytising Hindu beliefs, he demurred: "Hinduism is a way of life. It's not religion, it's a way of life for mankind. This is not related to religion."

Yet a stroll around the grounds of Go-vigyan Kendra left little doubt about the way in which the cow is venerated here. A noticeboard listing daily activities mentioned that 9am was time for "cow worship", when the animals are washed, scrubbed and a prayer ritual, which involves encircling the cow with incense and painting a red dot or tika on its head, is performed.

The cow has long been at the centre of often vicious political and cultural battles in India. Considered sacred by Hindus and protected by law, purported attacks on cows are often used as rallying device by right-wing Hindu groups, such as the VHP. Dalits, or so-called untouchables, are often attacked, beaten and even murdered after being accused of killing or eating cows, something that is banned in the majority of Indian states. Just last week there were protests from Dalits and others in the southern state of Karnataka where the state government passed new legislation to ban eating cows or buffalo. Yet despite their supposed high status, cows often live a shabby life in India, especially in large cities where they idly wander the traffic-choked roads or graze on piles of festering rubbish and plastic bags. In Delhi, the government employs teams of urban cowboys to catch the stray animals and take them away on trucks to farms on the city's edge.

Asked to explain this apparent discrepancy, Mr Dawle said: "Britain ruled India for 200 years, broke the village economy and imposed their lifestyle on Indian people. People forgot the importance of the cow." If people at the institute have their way that will never happen again. Dr Bhojraj said in addition to the Gomutra Ark, 28 products manufactured at the institute had received clearance from the government's food and drug safety body. Best of all, she said, there were no side effects from these products, not even from the fearsome-sounding concoction that her staff had been making in smoking pans.

Her words were still ringing out a few moments later when it was time to test the raw materials the wonder drugs are made from. In a small room at the rear of the institute, several clay pots were lined up against the wall. Dr Bhojraj lifted the lid from one of them and scooped out the light, straw-coloured liquid with a small metal cup.

"It is eight-day-old distillate of cow's urine," she said. "It may smell quite strong." Indeed it did. But the smell of this aged urine, however bad, was nothing compared to its taste. Just the smallest sip was enough to trigger a flurry of different associations – burning grass, petrol, Laphroaig whisky, rancid sourness – that produced a vile gustatory overload. The heart seemed to beat faster, the brow sweated. Would it be deemed impolite to step outside and spit? "Perhaps you'd like some water," enquired Dr Bhojraj. One might assume something that tasted so bad must do some good.

In the US patent for Gomutra Ark, the product was described as a "composition useful for protecting and/or repairing DNA from oxidative damages". Dr Bhojraj said chemicals in urine caused cancer to cells to "commit suicide". And it is not just cancer. One of the institute's books claims Indian cow's urine – and it must be Indian cows, they insist – can also help treat renal failure, leprosy, skin disease, piles, anaemia, jaundice, mouth ulcers and ear disease.

In India, drinking urine has a long history and may stretch back thousands of years. One ancient text, the Damar Tantra, is said to contain more than 100 verses on the benefits of both drinking urine and of massaging it into the skin.

The late Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, who served between 1977 and 1979, was famous for his championing of so-called "urine therapy" and claimed drinking his own had helped him get rid of piles. He even once told an interviewer that drinking urine could be a "perfect" medical solution to millions of Indians unable to afford doctors.

Yet for all its champions, most experts, at least outside of India, have concluded there are no benefits to be obtained from drinking it.

Dr Donald Hensrud, chairman of preventive medicine at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told ABC News: "I think I'm perfectly comfortable in saying that I'm aware of no data that cow's urine – or any other species' urine – holds any promise... in treating or preventing cancer." Such opinions will do nothing to deter the friendly and charming people at the Go-vigyan Kendra.

When it was time to leave, The Independent was escorted from the farm by Madhu Rotkar, a former civil servant who worked there as a volunteer. He was 76 and yet appeared to have boundless energy. Asked, inevitably, if he drank the purportedly-magical cow's urine, he replied with a smile: "Every morning."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Murray celebrates reaching the final
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
tech
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Arts and Entertainment
Master of ceremony: Jeremy Paxman
tvReview: Victory for Jeremy Paxman in this absorbing, revealing tale
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Communications Executive

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Agent / QA Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness