For many Singaporeans, the prospect of leaving a stable job to work on a farm might seem inconceivable. Not so for Mr Rajagopal Balakrishnan, who gave up his old job as a prison officer to work at his father-in-law’s dairy farm 8 years ago. He now runs it full time, from milking the cows to carrying out milk deliveries, and even brings the animals to homes and temples for blessing rituals.
Our car turned off the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) onto Jalan Bahar, just slightly east of Nanyang Technological University, and started heading north. As we continued onto Lim Chu Kang Road, the arterial road bisecting Singapore’s remote northwestern corner, the shifts in the landscape became steadily more apparent. Gone were the skyscrapers and traffic of urban Singapore. Instead, on either side of the main road the wide cloudless sky stretched along with a network of army camps and nurseries, cemeteries and farms. By the time we emerged from the car, we were just metres from the coast, with the stillness of our surroundings punctuated only by the odd grunt or “moo”.
It is in this rural corner of the island that Mr Rajagopal ‘Raja’ Balakrishnan, 40, spends most of his days. As farm manager at Viknesh Dairy Farm, Raja’s days begin at 5.00 am, when the farm’s herd of 80 cows undergoes the first of two daily milkings.
“Running a dairy farm is not easy,” said Raja. He went on to explain: “You definitely have to work from early morning to late at night, because the cows have to eat. And cows eat a lot.”
“They have to eat in the morning, in the afternoon, and at dinner. We have about 80 cows, and to feed all 80 isn’t easy. It takes about two hours per feeding. Then we still have to milk the cows in the morning; we milk them twice a day, so we do it in the morning at five, and then again in the evening at five.”
Raja, a former prison officer, joined Viknesh Dairy Farm in 2010. The business had been started in 2003 by his father-in-law Mr Govindasamy Subramaniam, now 64, a long-time dairy farmer who had previously worked in farms around Potong Pasir and Yio Chu Kang before eventually leasing the farm’s site from the Singapore Land Authority. After his marriage, Raja resigned from the Prison Service and began learning the ropes from his father-in-law. We asked how he found going from working with people –
“– to working with cows?” Raja interjected. “Yeah, [it was] a totally different environment.” If he found the adjustment difficult, however, it didn’t show; Raja’s easy-going nature was evident throughout our interview.
“The change was okay lah, because I’m okay working with animals,” he said. “[My] father-in-law had to teach me how to milk the cows, how to take care of the cows, how to look at their appearance and be able to say if they are pregnant….all that stuff, I learned from him.”
“Now it’s going fine,” he said, with a tired but content smile. “Now I even talk to the cows. It’s easier to deal with animals.”
Raja in one of the farm’s two barns. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
The farm’s cattle are housed in two open-air barns, with females, bulls, and calves all kept in different pens; they share the space with a couple of dozen goats “which we keep for fun”, said Raja. Most of the cows have names, and Raja’s affection for his animals was apparent throughout our conversation. He even has favourites, a three-year-old cow named Durgha and her four-month-old calf, Rani. “I named her Rani, because my name is Raja,” he said with a grin. (Rani, or ‘queen’, is the female form of ‘Raja’ (king) in Sanskrit and Hindi.)
The farm supplies fresh milk to several restaurants and all 23 Hindu temples in Singapore, as well as to homes island-wide via a delivery service. These deliveries are all handled by Raja, although he also helps out with feeding and milking the cows after he gets back from his rounds.
“The temple deliveries have been going on for many years, they were started by my father-in-law,” said Raja. “He started off with those and then began supplying to restaurants. When I came in, we began taking in more orders from restaurants, and then I started doing home deliveries.”
Although the sale of dairy products is the business’s main source of revenue, a fair amount also comes from its ‘blessing ritual’ services, wherein Raja and one of his farmhands will take a cow and a calf to bless homes and/or temples around the island in a ritual known as the gomatha pooja (literally, ‘cow prayer ritual’). While the gomatha pooja is a longstanding Hindu tradition, and used to be fairly commonplace, it began to decline from around the 1970s as people began moving into HDB flats.
Sensing an opportunity to resuscitate the practice, Raja’s father-in-law began offering this service in the 1990s, under a previous venture called Fresh Milk Supplies. At present, Viknesh Dairy Farm is only farm in Singapore to offer cows and calves for rent in such a practice.
“It started with my father-in-law’s family first. He brought it to his sister-in-law’s place, then his daughter’s, that’s how it started,” recalled Raja. “Then other families heard about it from their relatives and friends, since we didn’t have Facebook in the 1990s,” he said.
“Hindus consider the cow to be a sacred animal. According to the scriptures, the prosperity god lives in the tail of the female cow, so you bring the cow and its baby to the house to bless it,” he continued. “This way, all the evils will go away and bring in good prosperity.”
The farm gets about 20 to 30 requests annually and carries the ritual out year-round, save for during the Hindu month of Aadi, which falls around July to August. As Hindu custom discourages activity like weddings and moving house during Aadi, the gomatha pooja is not carried out during this time.
Ahead of the ritual, Raja will visit the site to check out the area, taking note of any space constraints posed by lifts, for example, and then selects an appropriately-sized cow and calf. (As unlikely as it may first seem, a four-year-old cow weighing several hundred kilograms will fit in an HDB lift.) A fair amount of paperwork is also required, with permits needed to be sought from the HDB, the NEA, and the AVA, among others.
Raja with one of the cows which is used for the gomatha pooja. Most of the cows brought on the ritual are under four years old. Photo by: Catherine Nicholas
According to Raja, the gomatha pooja usually takes place in the early hours of the morning, and begins with prayers. “Before you let it walk around the house, the cow must face outside, with its back facing the house. After the prayers, we bring the cow in for a walk around the house, then we milk the cow there and offer the milk to the gods,” he explained. It’s also considered particularly auspicious if the cow were to defecate in the house.
Raja and his farmhands also train the cows to familiarise them with various aspects of the process, such as entering and disembarking from lorries, getting into lifts, and being led around a flat. Although he is now a veteran of the ritual, it took some getting used to for Raja – as well as the cows – in the beginning.
“One of the first few times I did the ritual, I was controlling the reins when suddenly the cow stepped on my leg,” he recalled. “It was an accident, I didn’t know how to gauge the distance and how to walk and all that. The pain was unbearable! But luckily, I was okay. Just got a 2-week medical certificate. I was very careful after that.”
As might be expected, the novelty of seeing a cow and calf in a HDB block often excites curious neighbours, although the permits prevent people from touching the animals. However, onlookers can catch a glimpse of Raja and his cows at the annual pongal (harvest) celebration in Hastings Road in Little India; the farm has also carried out bull cart rides in the past, and once brought 30 cows for a walk around Tekka Market during a pongal event in the 1990s.
To Raja’s delight, many of the enquiries he gets about the gomatha pooja services come from young people, especially newlyweds looking to bless their new home. “I feel good, I feel proud that I can keep this tradition alive and hope it will be an ongoing process,” he said. “The way of life in those days shouldn’t die off just like that.”
However, while he was optimistic about the renewed popularity of the gomatha pooja, Raja was also candid about some of the challenges faced by the business. Many of its cattle are now quite old, and are no longer suitable to keep breeding or able to produce as much milk. By his own estimate, the farm’s current output of milk is at 20% of where he would like it to be. As such, Raja is in talks with the AVA to import more cows from Australia; he also hopes to renovate the barns and eventually open the farm to visits from the public.
Another issue the farm struggles with is manpower. “Singaporeans will never do this kind of thing, work in farms,” said Raja, bluntly. As a result, all his hires are migrant workers from India, who are already accustomed to working with cattle and are not put off by the gruelling and messy work. While a handful of Singaporeans have expressed interest in joining the farm as part-time workers in the past, he has never encountered a local willing to work full-time.
Raja with his favourite calf, Rani. Photo by: Catherine Nicholas
In the meantime, though, Raja is determined to keep going. “You must have the hard work and the passion for it,” he said. With this, at least, he has no trouble; at our request, he gamely climbed into the pens to try and get Rani to pose for a photo.
“I enjoy getting to bring families happiness, lah,” he said. “When they get to bring a cow and calf into the house, which has always been a tradition of the Hindus…basically, their happiness is my joy.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign