Butter Thief?!

30 Nov

Why would anybody want to eat handfuls of butter?

There is a painting in my parents’ home that I have coveted ever since I was a kid. When I was little, I’d beg my mom to let me hang it up in my room. She refused and I can’t say I blame her: it really is far too pretty to be wasted on my bedroom, which I guard like Fort Knox when I’m in residence. And once I left home and abandoned it to the fate of guest room-ship there really was no point shifting it onto one of my walls. If guests want to see something pretty, let them look out the window. Besides, Ma bought that painting in the first place because she felt as strongly about it as I do. And as she lives there year around and I don’t – checkmate.

“It’s a Baby Krishna painting,” I tried to explain my obsession with it to a friend. “You know, the classic pose? The cute baby one? Makhan chor? Where he’s all adorably chubby and crawling up to a pot of fresh butter and dipping his fist into it?”

Wait, hold on – what? My friend was saying something in reply but there was a sudden buzz in my ears, drowning her out. Dipping his fist into a pot of fresh butter? Who eats handfuls of butter, fresh or not? I’ve had freshly churned butter and yes, it’s very nice but would I want to eat pots of it? No. Do I like it enough to steal pots of it? Um, no. Did I like it enough to court the nickname, Makhan Chor? I don’t think so!

Butter Thief? Butter Thief?! Who the hell likes butter enough to get the moniker Butter Thief?

All these years I never thought about it. It was just a cutesy name for Krishna, and call me a silly girl but I do like Him a lot. Hindus tend to have very personal feelings about their favorite deities and we often talk of them like they were our favorite cousins or something, so the whole “Butter Thief” thing was on par with, say, my brother who really liked this one fried banana dish so much that he’d constantly be asking everyone to make it for him until my cousin nicknamed him after his favorite food. You’d think going to boarding school where your cool older cousin’s friends called you Fried Banana Dish would be traumatising enough to throw him off that food item for the rest of his life but no – he still loves it. Now that’s some serious love. And yet, I’ve never heard that my brother went raiding somebody’s house for some bananas.

But apparently Krishna loved butter so much, he actually stole it from other people’s homes when he couldn’t get a fix at home. What exactly am I missing here?

It has to be either an ancient cultural thing or an allegory of some sort, surely. I’d ask Ma but I’m afraid she’ll sign me up for classes of some kind and my poor body is still recovering from the last set of lessons she bought me as a “gift”.

Now I understand He grew up in some sort of rural community dedicated to cowherding so it makes sense that everyone around him was making butter because it’s not like ancient India was known for its cheese or refrigeration, is it? This was also pre-pasteurization so there’s that to be considered. And there’s only so much milk you can drink without bringing it all back up. Besides which, not everybody actually enjoys drinking milk, which I personally find strange (it’s yummy, it’s healthy, it goes great with chocolate whether hot or cold – what’s not to like?) but it’s not for me to judge.

But what exactly were they doing with all that butter? I don’t think anybody ever explained that to me. All this time I’ve sort of imagined that they did what we’d do these days with it (sell it to the co-op!) but now that I think about it, the White Revolution (relax, this is the food kind) only took place a couple of decades ago.

So did they sell it or did they all have a butter addiction? Because if you’ve seen those paintings of Krishna sneaking in to steal some butter, there’re pots and pots of the stuff. Their food must have been drowning in it!

Butter! Butter! Butter! Butter flavored milk! Butter flavored veggies! Butter flavored toothpaste! Butter! Butter! Butter! It makes everything… better.

The heart disease in that district must have been through the roof. Maybe that’s why Yasoda was always mad when Krishna stole the butter. How happy would you be if your kid developed a butter addiction? You come home from work and there’s little Munnu Punnu sitting on the couch, watching TV and munching on a stick of butter. Ew! Butter breath baby!

But maybe it was about economics as well. Even if they didn’t have currency back then (did they?), they must have had some sort of barter system and it can’t have been going well if the day’s butter was getting gobbled up by some kid with an outsize appetite.

Which is another thing I don’t get. All through the stories, Krishna seems pretty aware of the fact that he’s actually a divinity and not some mortal kid. So he must remember what he used to eat in his regular guise, right? Ambrosia, which has always gotten pretty good press. Add two plus two: does ambrosia taste like butter? Oh my God, is that why I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter will keep you alive longer? Are we buying the food of the Gods in a little plastic tub for less than five bucks?

Being a God isn’t what it used to be, huh?

I thought maybe this is some sort of representation of the eat butter-get fat-look rich formula. You know, “child of an eating-drinking home”, which sounds sort of terrifying in translation (you have a home that likes to snack? On what? Flesh and blood?) until you realize it’s just Indian code for “fat” or rather “not poor”. The only problem here is that once Krishna grows up, he apparently went into butter rehab and never steals any again. Of course, he was king so maybe he could now afford all the butter he wanted. I say tomato, you say tomahto; I say chocolate eclairs, you say butter.

But the other intriguing theory I read was that “Butter Thief” was a reference to Krishna’s more famous role as “Love Thief”. I need to read more about this angle because the memory of my childhood is now staring at me like I was a mad person.


Posted by on November 30, 2007 in Life


26 responses to “Butter Thief?!

  1. Amey

    November 30, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    So you mean to say butter was the ancient-India-equivalent of “sugar” (or “shugah” as it is pronounced)?

  2. desigirl

    December 1, 2007 at 3:54 am

    you have no equal!!!

    (ps: I love Krishna too but never paused to consider the origins behind the nickname or the whys and wherefores of it.)

  3. OrangeJammies

    December 1, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    I can’t believe there’s actually somebody else out there who has given this as much dedicated thought as I have! (I’d worry incessantly about cholestrol issues) But nobody could put it as well as you! Krishna’s my favorite too… you don’t have to be Hindu to love him.

  4. Amrita

    December 1, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Amey – that’s a good question. how comes Krishna doesn’t have a sweet tooth, when he obviously had that other sweet tooth (wink wink nudge nudge).

    DG – what to do? I’m like this only. 😀 it’s the translations that always bring it up for me. Language and culture are so tightly intertwined.

    OJ – No! You too? I feel less of a freak now 😀 Totally get what you’re saying about Krishna… I’ve been appropriating Jesus for years!

  5. Amit

    December 1, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Awesome piece! Loved it 🙂

  6. dipali

    December 2, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I guess they’d have made lots of ghee from the butter, which could then be sold/bartered later, since ghee can last for ever! And he must have been pinching butter from the neighbours because his mom, like most sensible moms, would have probably not given him unlimited access to high cholesterol, high calorie food.! There are also songs which speak of maakhan mishri – maybe the combo was more inspiring than just butter.
    One loves this image of Krishna as I think many of us must have been raiding the larder as children, and its nice to know it had divine precedence.
    However, his teasing and troubling the gopis seems more like eve-teasing. What do you say?

  7. rampantheart

    December 4, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Hi Amrita,

    I stumbled upon your blog from a friend’s and must say i am all hooked up!Just stopped by to say that your blog is amazing!

    BTW,i have not given so much of a thought over his being called a Butter thief.But i guess it’s just a word-of-mouth stuff.As yiu had mentioned,who would want to eat a pot full of butter?As a butter aficionado,i would say this cant be true.

    Anyways,this is a very interesting topic!I will make a research of the same and let ya know!;)lol

  8. Amrita

    December 4, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks Amit 🙂

    Dipali – you’re so right about precedents 😳 The eve teasing thing is interesting because I think thats where we get the annoying Bollywood tradition of harassing a girl into going out with you. It sounds cute when Krishna does it but it doesn’t translate so well these days

    Rampantheart – welcome to the blog and thank you 🙂 I have quite a fondness for the stuff myself but i’ll let you carry out the research!

  9. Ian

    December 5, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    I think Krishna’s playfulness in stealing butter, His teasing and troubling, was really a way of getting the gopis (and others) to have their mind on Him regularly. Nothing more, nothing less.

  10. Sujatha

    December 5, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    The secret is freshly churned butter. 🙂

  11. Jam

    December 6, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Hey there,

    I guess Krishna’s butter fetish is second only to Ganesha’s Modak (Kozhakattai in Tamil) fetish. Down South, Ganesha is almost never imagined without the Modaks that go so along with anything associated with him.

    Nice post though. Loved the way you analyzed the whole butter thingie in such a detailed manner. Reminds me of me, when I start analyzing arbit things like these and try to come up with meaningful (or meaningless) conclusions.


  12. Revathi

    December 6, 2007 at 4:58 am

    Dear Dipali,

    “His troubliing the gopis seems liike eve teasing”. Please remember that Krishna was under 14 when all this happened- so it cannot be considered as eve teasing. He played the fulte and the gopis ran after him leaving their husbands. His love for everyone was pure and without any motive.
    Remember, he saved Rukmini from an undesirable marriage? Which eve teaser would do that?

  13. Amrita

    December 6, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Ian – thats a pretty good angle. hmm.

    Suj – butter freak ahoy 😀

    Jam – thank you, i’m glad i’m not such a weirdo then 🙂 I fully understand the divine love of food, though: it’s one of those things we humans got right.

    Revathi – jumping in for Dipali but I dont think she meant to say what you’ve deduced from her words.
    It’s just that when you start transposing ancient customs to modern times, things begin to take on a different hue. In any case, even in those days, if any of the other cowherds had followed Krishna’s example, I doubt he’d have been as popular. But that’s the case even today: we give some people a pass because they have a certain je ne sais quois and give others a tough time for the same thing.
    And as for him being 14 and his love being pure – 14 is plenty old enough to do a lot of things. Think Romeo for example. And he was only human. As for pure, there are a ton of stories to suggest that Krishna was walking the talk, so to speak.

  14. dipali

    December 6, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for jumping in, Amrita.
    I love the phrase ‘je ne sais quois’ hearing it after ages!
    Revathi, no offence intended.

  15. A Nony Mous

    December 12, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    “Look, I don’t like leaving anonymous comments. Other people are free to do so, but I don’t like it for myself.”

    Dude, your entire frigging blog is anonymous. Have you looked at your own “About” page lately? Of course, there is no law against hypocrisy. Rock on!

  16. Amrita

    December 12, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Dear Annoying Mouse – I’d tell you to get a clue but I don’t think you can afford to buy any.

  17. MOULI

    August 5, 2008 at 1:44 am


  18. Pitu

    August 5, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    “we often talk of them like they were our favorite cousins” so true! I lubs my Ganpati and I can tell you, there would be an armed revolution in my house if tons of modaks were not presented to Him, because of course, he WANTS them! How can you not give Him modaks? That’s as wrong as not giving a baby its bottle! In fact, one year my nana brought home some yellow hibiscus for a change and my nani kicked up a major fuss because of course, Ganpati lubs his RED hibiscus and my nana had to go get some.

    I personally hate dairy products and am vegan so for me it’s even more of a eww how could you eat sooo much butter? But, my maushi (aunt) ate an entire jar of ‘toop’ (ghee) when she was a toddler. My nani was chatting with the neighbor or something. This resulted in several ‘toop’ worthy moments in the errr bathroom 😛 and since my maushi has always been a chubby, soft lady (unlike my mom and other maushi with their supermodel figures) her figure was always attributed to the ‘toop’vaganza. Much like Obelisk and that magic potion 🙂

  19. Pitu

    August 5, 2008 at 1:08 pm


  20. Amey

    August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    @Pitu: True… Ganpati (and anybody named after him) has to have modak, the more the better 😀

    BTW, modak taste just great with toop.

  21. Pitu

    August 5, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    mmm especially ukdice modak yumm

  22. Kanan

    August 5, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Excellent post, Amrita!

    Just goes to tell how bad the quality of butter has become. I remember eating home-made freshly churned butter as a kid. It takes a long time, but totally worth it. I wish I got to eat it now – it’s pure, so soft, white, fluffy and slips from your hands if you try to hold it. You eat it with any form of bread – the baked ones you get from outside or the hundreds of home made kinds. The one you get in tub is not butter, it’s chemicals and colors. Same goes for the yogurt they sell in stores.

    Why would anyone want to eat handfuls of it? For the same reason we eat bread with butter, salad with dressing, bagel with shmear, cake with icing, … (and the list continues). Butter, from which ghee is made, has what they call satva guNa. It is supposed to be really good for your body. It’s possible that people in those days could have been eating it in bigger quantities too because they didn’t have processed foods that contained saturated fats and harmful chemicals. The milk came from cows (unprocessed), the grains and vegetables/fruits directly from the farms. Land too was much less poluated 5000 years ago than it is now. They didn’t have cars or other vehicles to take them around, so they either walked, rode the chariot or took some similar trasportation which allowed more physical activity than sitting in say an airconditioned car or bus. People’s daily routines involved enough workout so in case they ate more fatty foods, they probably burned out calories in the same amount.

    Btw, even today there brahmins in India who have capacity to drink jars of ghee and they do so without getting the overeating feeling. 😉

    More on Guna here:

  23. Amrita

    August 6, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Pitu and Amey – I have only the vaguest idea what you guys are talking about but it’s something I’m gonna check out when next i’m in bbay.

    Kannan – you’ve clearly thought about this 😀

  24. Amey

    August 6, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    @Amrita: Modak = sweetened coconut shavings steamed in a rice skin 😀 aka, the round-pointy thing you see in the lower left hand of Ganpati.

    @Pitu: Ganesh Chaturthi is in first week of Sept. Where and when do I collect my modak? Olya naralache.

  25. pitu

    August 6, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Amey, last time I made modak, they were purty darn good! This yr I shall attempt ukdice modak with vegan butter 😀 And my plan this yr is to host a leetle Ganesh pujan on the blog with a moorti made at home using tomatoes, chilis and potatoes 🙂 Send me addy, will send em ovah. But who’s gonna do all the naaraL khav-ing? Also, Amrita, send addy for modaks 🙂

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