Gau-dhuli : A Delicately Descriptive Word

Some words, as a friend recently remarked, are delicately descriptive – they do not merely carry a ‘meaning’ but a lot more. Unfortunately, it becomes nigh impossible for someone who has not grown-up in the particular cultural milieu in which those words originated and were originally used, to understand them fully.

Gau-dhuli (गो-धूली) – a word that used to be common in many Indian languages, seems to me, to be one such word. Dictionaries generally give its meaning as twilight and sometimes, literally, as ‘cow-dust’ but as someone who has not just read it in books but experienced it, such descriptions feel wholly unsatisfactory.

When I was growing up, almost every family in Indian villages used to keep cattle – commonly cows for milk and bullocks for plowing fields, drawing carts etc. and there were few families in most village whose primary profession was cow-herding. Every day, early in the morning, they would take everyone’s cattle and herd them to the common village-pastures; and in the evenings, they would bring them back and leave them near your dalaan (दालान) – a process and time, that seemed magical as a child.

I would be busy playing with my cousins and friends near the dalaan and just around sun-set, you could hear some distant cowbells. The whole atmosphere would transform, for the next 10-15 minutes: Gradually, the bells would become clearer and you could hear the sound of 300-400 cattle on the move – the sound of their hooves on the kacha-street. You still couldn’t see them for the next few seconds; but you could smell them in the air.

We would stand at the edge of the narrow street that ran through the village, peeping  – afraid of the ill-tempered bulls that were wont to be part of such herds, yet supremely excited – and suddenly you could see the huge heard at a distance, heading fast in your direction! – Raising a cloud of dust as they marched ahead – seemingly happy and well-fed and largely ignoring the uninterrupted shouts of the cow-herders following them – eager to get back home.

And as they approached, another miracle unfolded – from among the herd of hundreds of animals, our cows would push their way through and stop right near their cow-shed – on their own! And the rest of the herd would continue on, towards their home; leaving the ‘cow-dust’, receding sound of their bells and the sweet smell, in their wake.

So, when I hear the word गो-धूली it is not just the time of the day (technically, about 30 minutes before and after sunset) that comes to my mind; it also brings with it the colour of the evening, the sound of the cowbells and hundreds of hooves, the shouts of the cow-herders, the smell in the air, the rising and settling dust and the soft sun-light filtering through it.

How do you explain that through a dictionary?

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