Potters’ wisdom for last journey

Agents Of Change, Animal Dung, Bihar, Scientists, Forest Conservation, Traditional Knowledge

By Alok Kumar Gupta
Published: Friday 15 January 2010

PottersÔÇÖ wisdom for last journey

imageIt was an evening in August. A group of men on a boat were packing dried dung cakes and hay into an earthen silo tied to the hull in Darbhanga district. Slowly, a body was pushed between the dung cakes. Oil was sprinkled on top. Smoke curled out as the cakes were lit with a matchstick. The silo happened to be a funeral pyre. This was how people living on boats during floods (caused by the river Bagmati) were cremating their dead relatives; dry wood was hard to obtain.

In the past few years, cremation using dung cakes has caught on in the district. The cheap fuel, easily found in most rural households, is preferred by many over wood even in normal times.

The cremation ground in Kusheshwarasthan area, for instance, offers dung cakes for funeral pyres. Here, circular pits are used instead of silos. Each dung cake is cylindrical in shape and weighs 1.5 kg. About 200 kg dung cakes are required to cremate a body. The cakes are arranged in tiers and the body placed within. The pit is then packed with dung cakes and a small aperture is left open to perform the last rites.

“In a month, four to five cremations are held using dung cakes,” said Dheeraj Tiwari, a priest at the cremation ground in Kusheshwarnath.

Promoted by a botany professor

The person who has helped popularize the practice is a botany professor and principal of mrm College in Darbhanga, Vidyanath Jha. While enquiring about reasons for disappearing mango orchards in the district, Jha discovered that many trees were being cut for cremation; wood obtained from the tree is considered auspicious. Jha’s quest to find an alternative to wood led him to the potter community who he found used earthen silos and cowdung cakes for cremation.

Now every fourth cremation in the district is held using cowdung cakes said Jha who has worked hard to popularize the practice for the past five years.

He said he learnt the technique from the kumhars or potters. “The kumhars have expertise in arranging dung cakes in a pattern that gives maximum heat needed to fire kilns,” said Jha. “This practice can be promoted in other parts of the country too to save trees,” he added. Since Bihar has scant forest cover and there are no electric crematoriums, the practice must be adopted in other districts too, said Jha. Seventeen out of the 38 districts in the state have no forest cover; in North Bihar, the forest cover is a mere 1.92 per cent.

Jha said he had initially feared a backlash from Hindu religious groups when he started promoting cowdung cakes for cremation. To his surprise, there was no resistance; he realized it was because cow dung is also considered auspicious. In recent months, the well-to-do people and people dwelling in urban areas too have started using dung cakes for cremation, said Jha.

imageI learnt the technique from the kumhars who have expertise in rranging dung cakes in a pattern that gives maximum heat needed to fire kilns

—Vidyanath Jha, botany professor and principal of MRM College
A few scientists have however criticized use of cow dung in funeral pyres. They said that cow dung should be used as manure to promote agriculture or for biogas production.

Jha said there should be a debate on the matter but that his critics should keep in mind the power shortage, backwardness and depleting forest cover in Bihar. “Each cremation requires 240kg to 280 kg of timber which means cutting down one fully grown tree,” Jha pointed out. He is now putting together a report on dung cake cremation. He said his job will be made easy if the authorities take affirmative action on his report.

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