Despite its image for venerating the cow as a sacred beast and regarding the eating of beef as "taboo," tens of millions of people in India do indeed eat beef on a regular basis.
In fact, in the western coastal state of Goa, a shortage of beef has raised alarms among the public, as well as restaurants and hotels that cater not only to Indian beef eaters but also, of course, tourists from other parts of the world.
According to the Times of India newspaper, the situation in Goa has become so dire that a group of meat traders has urged the local government to release more than 100 cows and bulls from custody in order to help fill swelling demand for meat.
The Goa government had earlier banned the slaughter of cattle and other animals at a prominent local abattoir over safety and hygiene concerns. A strike by local truckers has also hurt the beef market.
Francisco Sardinha, the South Goa member of Parliament, even criticized the state government for not making beef available in the market for “Christians and Catholics,” for whom beef is a staple.
"I don't know what the thinking of this government is, whether they want to have beef or no beef or have mutton, which is so expensive," he said.
Beef is big business in India, despite the fact that many Indian states ban the slaughter of cows outright.
Over the past four years, beef exports have surged by more than 44 percent, while domestic consumption has climbed by a comparable amount, according to Times of India.
Meat produced by registered slaughterhouses jumped from 557,000 tonnes in 2008 to 805,000 tonnes in 2011. Income from bovine exports are expected to reach 18 billion rupees ($328 million) this year.
In 2012, in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, India became the world's No. 1 beef exporter, beating out such perennial beef powerhouses Australia and New Zealand.
However, it is unclear how much of this beef comes from the sacred cow and how much from other bovine creatures.
Indeed, buffalo are also slaughtered for their tasty flesh -- Uttar Pradesh, a huge province in India’s north, is the country’s largest buffalo beef exporter.
“Our meat is lean and cheaper. We supply halal meat, which is preferred in [the Persian] Gulf countries," Surendra Kumar Ranjan, director of Hind Agro Industries in Uttar Pradesh, said.
However, the industry is not well-regulated. Indian media reported that the products that meets international standards are sold to markets in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, while meat sold domestically is “substandard.”
Moreover, the treatment of animals in Indian slaughterhouses fall far below acceptable standards. "There is rampant abuse of animals in transport and slaughter of meat whether for domestic consumption or export," Arpan Sharma, CEO of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, said. "Animals are overloaded in vehicles and transported without food and water. None of the meat exporters pay attention to the condition of animals."
Of course, some Hindu traditionalists are appalled by the rising consumption of beef in the country. "The cow is our mother, it's our duty to protect her," said Ashoo Mongia, who belongs to an unofficial “enforcement team” that monitors stores, butcher shops and slaughterhouses suspected of selling cow meat, according to CNN. "We do this because we believe in what the cow represents in our country, our culture and in the Hindu religion."
But Ranjan of Hind Agro believes Hindus in India should relax any cultural prohibitions on the beef trade in the interests of commerce. "Cow beef could be a very lucrative business in India," he told CNN. "I think five to 10 years from now, people won't be so scandalized by the sale of cow beef."
CNN estimates that 1.5 million cows, valued at up to a half-billion dollars, are smuggled out of India every year -- roughly one-half of the beef eaten in neighboring (and overwhelmingly Muslim) Bangladesh come from these “illegal” cattle.
"When you consider just how much money is made from underground cow smuggling, it becomes clear that not only is there a huge amount at stake, but a huge demand that butchers and slaughterhouses are catering to," Dr. Zarin Ahmad, a fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi, told CNN.
The “prohibition” on eating cow meat stretches into Indian antiquity -- thousands of years ago, bulls and oxen were sacrificed to the Gods, and their flesh was eaten. However, at some point, perhaps due to a sudden shortage of cattle, cows became protected and even revered. Given that cows provided milk, butter and fuel, they became economically indispensable.
In ancient Vedic scriptures of the Laws of Manu, it is written: “There is no sin in eating meat ... but abstention brings great rewards.”
Still, Hinduism does not specifically ban anyone from eating beef. “Most Indians are not vegetarians by choice but by compulsion,” Purvi Mehta, heads of the Asia office of the International Livestock Research Institute, told CNN.