Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Sunday, 27 September 2009 01:01 UK

Cow dung cremations catch on in Bihar

cremation in bihar
The new mode of cremation has achieved widespread social acceptance

By Amarnath Tewary in Patna, Bihar

In India's remote north-east, recent floods have forced people in the state of Bihar to come up with an environmentally friendly way to cremate their dead.

Where traditionally only the wood from a mango tree was used to fuel the funeral fire in this part of India, now people are making do with cow dung as the only source of fuel.

It may sound outlandish but this local alternative is not only catching on fast but has achieved widespread social acceptance.

Annual flooding in two districts of northern Bihar has meant that access to mango trees is restricted.

Entire mango orchards have been swept away by the flood waters.

Dung is easily available and coming from herbivorous cattle, acceptable in sacred terms too. Dung has long been used along with wood in funeral fires in India's south.

Flooded forests

There are many factors behind the new development in Bihar.

The new method is said to be more environmentally friendly

The ritual of the funeral fire consumes on average an entire mango tree.

Besides being less cumbersome and environmentally destructive, cow dung cakes are also more economical.

"With the stringent restrictions over cutting green trees, the mango woods have become costlier and it even becomes difficult during the flood season to get, especially when the whole area remains chronically waterlogged for months," Professor Vidyanath Jha told the BBC.

Professor Jha, a botany professor in Darbhanga, has conducted extensive research on the use of dung in cremations in northern Bihar.

He says that the perennial flooding in the area has led to a rapid depletion in forest cover. This is what ultimately forced rural people to seek alternative fuels for cremations.

Only 7% of Bihar is forested. North Bihar has a meagre 1.92% forest cover.

"There are waterlogged areas like Kusheshwarasthan where mango orchards have completely been wiped out," said Professor Jha.

Using cow dung is known in Bihar as the "goraha" way of cremation. Cow dung is fashioned into a long rod-shaped cake, known locally as goraha.

Under the new method of cremation, people dig a large pit and arrange long rod-shaped cow dung cakes in rows set in three tiers.

The lowest tier comprises three horizontal rows arranged in a scaffolding pattern and an additional fourth layer is added when the soil is moist.

Pressure is exerted on the lower layers which break into smaller pieces and help absorb the soil moisture.

The lowest tier serves as the podium on which the corpse is laid in a sitting posture to minimise the surface area. A small space is left between tiers to light the pyre through performing the rituals.

The flame gradually reaches the lower layers and sets the whole body alight.

Cheaper cremation

About 200kg of cow dung cakes are used to burn a corpse, compared with about 240-280kg of mango wood.

Cremation preparation in bihar
Forest cover in Bihar is rapidly disappearing

"Under this system the whole body gets disposed of within one-and-half-hours, whereas in the traditional system mourners needed to be at the funeral site for three to four hours," said Shambhu Ram, a college employee who cremated one of his relatives using dung as fuel a year ago.

"One has to spend only 400-500 rupees ($6-$8) in the goraha system as opposed to between 3,000-4,000 rupees ($62-$83) in the traditional mango-wood cremation of a dead body.

"It's easy, cheap and takes less time for us who are waterlogged in flood waters for three to four months every year in monsoon season," Mr Ram says.

But what happens when there is no dry area when flooding is at its worst?

"We put a kothi [earthen container] on the front portion of a country boat and then take the corpse inside it and follow the same process as in goraha. When the body gets burnt we push the kothi into the flood water," explains Shambhu Ram.

Kothi is generally used for storing grains.

"As about 40% of people in these northern districts have now opted for this new system of cremation it has become socially acceptable too," Professor Jha said.

Environmentalists say this new trend of cremation also saves further depletion of the mango trees for which this flood-prone region is renowned.

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