Of Cowdung Cakes

Non-Indians are often baffled by the use of cow dung in rural India. India’s love affair with the humble Indian cow is well known. However this dung attraction is more difficult to understand. Let me try and unravel the mystery.

The cow is a complete eco-system for rural India. Ogden Nash was not far off the mark, when he said of the cow – “of bovine ilk, one end is moo and the other milk” – except that things get a lot more convoluted when adding dung to the equation.

The floors of Indian huts are made up of mud. Cow-dung mixed with mud or lime is regularly used to plaster the floors of the huts in rural India. Plastering the floor in this way, allows the water to be absorbed quickly thus preventing muddy puddles on the ground. Plastering the walls of the house with cow-dung also provides a kind of insulation to the home, keeping it cool in summer and warm in winter.  According to Ayurveda, which is a traditional form of medicine in India, it is believed that cow-dung has a chemical that is similar to penicillin and has natural disinfectant properties.  It is believed to be anti-bacterial and antiseptic and therefore helps to keep the germs and insects away. Since Ayurveda is viewed as an alternative form of medicine, these claims need to be backed up by credible scientific research. Furthermore though the cow is an important religious icon, the use of cow-dung is largely due to practical reasons rather than religious ones.

To be honest, purely from a personal perspective, ground that has been freshly plastered with cow dung does look extremely clean and polished. The cow dung plaster hardens after a time giving the ground a smooth appearance. During one of my village visits, after having lived in a hut plastered with cow dung, all I can say is that the repugnancy of the dung somehow gets overlooked. It does not resemble dung when made into a plaster and it does not stink. The effect is more like that of a smooth, greenish cement paste. The smell is of the grassy kind (cows are herbivorous) and is believed to be a mood enhancer.

Dehydrated cow-dung is also used as fuel in rural India to power the cooking stoves in the villages. It is believed that almost 80% of the population of rural India use cow-dung fuel. The left over ashes from the previous day’s fire are mixed with cow-dung, made into cow-dung cakes and dried in the sun. These cakes are then used for fuel.  Cow dung is also an important natural fertiliser. Since in the villages, almost everyone has a cow, it is easily available. It has soil enrichment properties and reduces the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers.

Cheap, natural and eco-friendly – the attractions of the cow-dung for rural India are many. No cutting of trees required; no expensive or harmful chemical use and no invasions of oil-rich countries for fuel. No wonder then that it is so popular.

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