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Saving the Planet One Cow Dung at a Time, India – Part 2

Cow Dung and the Feminine Element

This post follows on the introductory first part:

Saving the Planet One Cow Dung at a Time –

Part 1: Cow products and opening the mind.

This post also belongs in the general theme of “Who Cleans India?” 

Oh, and a Few Words About Women's Status in Hindu Society

Before I came to India, I had already heard about the cow dung collection performed by the rural women, and how beneficial it is to the environment at large. I’ve also heard very contradicting voices regarding the status of Indian women in society. 

Who has the final word?

On the one hand, I knew that an Indian male politician will not take any major decision of state without first consulting with his mother!  . The “Mother” is also the ultimate decider on who is going to get married to whom and other important household decisions. In the Bollywood series I watch, Tujhse Hai Raabta, Aau Saheb, the matriarch, has the conclusive word over her meek husband and almost everybody else.

There are many women in the Indian government and a considerable number in big business. As I write, on this International Women’s day, Air India flew all-female crews on 52 routes. When our jeep was chugging up the Himalayas, people told me proudly about a Hindu girl of 11 who climbed the higest mountain passes on bicycle.

Help from above

Moreover, unlike many of us, growing up in or around patriarchial monotheistic religions, India has “authentic” goddesses, some of whom are fierce and mighty. In some incarnations they are loving and gentle. Even the cow, as described above, is a powerful divinity.

People worship the goddesses. Everybody believes  Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, can bring them good luck. Lakshmi is directly connected with cows and cow dung, as I elaborate below. Goddesses have their own temples and devotees, and are revered. Most sacred rivers are female divinities, including the Ghanga.

Help from history

During the Vedic period, women could choose several husbands (Polyandry); “women’s rights were taken seriously“; idols of gods and goddeses were depicted with equal importance; all male gods were shown with their consorts.

Unsurprsingly, the Muslim conquest brought a deterioration in women’s status, but still, polyandry was practiced until the 18th century in Kerala.

But the big “but”…

This is all on one side of the issue. On the other side are female infanticides, horrendous rapes, requirements for female obedience, early marriages, dowry, the universal custom of having the bride move to the husband’s house and having to serve her in-laws, restricitng women from participating in funerals or visiting certain temples, the almost non-existent presence of women on the streets, and so on.

My singing teacher said women are not allowed to sit with their feet facing their husbands. The opposite is no issue.

The biggest human rights violation on earth

In a Guardian article called, “India’s abuse of women is the biggest human rights violation on Earth“, about the “culture of silence” women are brought up into:

Girls are trained in silence. They are told to be quiet, to speak softly, dheere bolo, to have no opinions, no arguments, no conflicts. Silent women disappear. They are easy to ignore, overrule, and violate without repercussions. Over 50% of Indian men and women still believe that sometimes women deserve a beating. It serves a culture of violence to create pleasers, another habit that further erodes a woman’s sense of self.

Saving the World One Cow Dung at a Time

Inside this vast, contradictory and multi-faceted panorama of the woman and the goddess, obedience and mastery, I was curious to know whether the collection of dung is perceived as holy work and a blessing from God, or a humiliating shit job restricted to inferior women and children. 

But first, a few words on the overwhelming importance of this work:

To and from Earth

The overwhelming importance of dung work


From a cleanliness and hygenic point of view, I cannot imagine how dirty Indian city streets would be if that task was not carried on by these simple folk, the vast majority of them women, on a regular basis.

Veiled street cleaner, Pushkar, RajasthanA veiled woman collecting cow dung from the cow-loaded Pushkar streets


From a subsistence angle, collecting and recycling the dung for use as fuel for heating, cooking, house insulation and for soil fertilization, is absolutely essential to village life and for individual and family survival. 

To and from Earth

From an ecological environmental point of view, putting the dung back into Earth saves Indian soils from otherwise complete degradation after thousands of years of constant cultivation. It brings back to the soils nitrates, phosphtes and potassium, increases their moisture capacity and supports a whole food chain of creatures nourished by it. 

This work, though slow, laborious and inefficient in modren terms, is basically what makes the entire sub-continent livable.

Most importantly, it also saves woods and forests, helps to minimize fossil fuel contamination and global warming. Since most of India is still rural, we are talking about a substantial ecological contribution. 

And the village is never too far away
And the village is never too far away. Astonishingly, both Amazon and E-Bay now deliver dried cow dung in huge quantities to urbanites.

They are “reaching out to the country’s ever-increasing urban population, feeding into the desire of older city folks to harken back to their childhood in the village”. The smell. The feeling.

It is also used for festivals, including Divali and New Year, as I describe below, and to fertilize city kitchen gardens.


From an energy-utilization point of view, cow dung is a cornerstone in India’s energy use, though often ignored and belittled in official and academic reports. In the rural areas, it is used directly as fuel or, more recently, to manufacture biogas, saving rural women hours of toil collecting wood.  Still, it is clearly hard physical work in its own right.

The use of cow dung and “gobar gas” for fuel reduces the need for firewood and saves the remaining forests, preventing desertification.

The gas is rich in methane and is used in many parts of India and Pakistan to provide renewable and stable source of electricity. Regarding fuel, according to a 1989 article, 30% of rural energy comsumption in India comes from animal wastes. In Pakistan it was 80%. More recent statistics  ascribe over 40% of the energy supply in the country to biomass, out of which, 65% was derived from fuelwood, 20% from agricultural waste and 15% from cow dung. Also see below.

The religious aspects of the work

From a religious viewpoint, the cow dung, considered sacred, is used for rituals and celebrations. (See more on this below).

Hindus believe that one should not feel any repugnance towards the urine or dung of a cow as they are pure. As I elaborated in the background post, cow represents the Divine Mother that sustains all human beings and bring them up as her very own offspring.

Hindu holy men performing a ritual by burning dried cow dung cakes in earthen pots at Sangam.Hindu holy men performing a ritual by burning dried cow dung cakes in earthen pots at Sangam.

Source:    AP

Cow Dung and Women's Toil

View over fields, Turtuk village, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India

Much of the work on these beautiful, meticulously maintained, fields, including collecting the cow dung to fertilize them, is done by the village women. Turtuk, Ladakh.

Who does the field work?

I’m posting this picture from Turtuk village here (above), because  the majority of farming work I observed in this village, and in others, was done by women. And the fields were so beautiful.

Turtuk is a Muslim village in the Ladakh province near the border with Pakistan. It specializes in apricot products. The entire work related to the apricots is done by the women.

Dr. Catrien Notermans (see below) writes that in practice women did most of the agricultural work in the two Hindu villages she was studying in Rajasthan – cultivating the fields, carrying water, collecting fodder and firewood, and the animal caretaking. Men assist in the fields “when necessary”, help with transportation and marketing in town, and take over animal care only when running a commercial dairy.

I saw a few men working the fields in Manali, Vashisht and Likir – Hindu and Buddhist villages I spent some time in, and several old men working the fields in Maharashtra. 

This is a picture of men carrying winter greenery in Manali, Himachal Pradesh.

Men carrying winter greenery for fodder, Manali, Himachal PradeshMen carrying winter fodder, Manali, Himachal Pradesh.

And, speaking of carrying – this Turtuk lady carries (empty) gas cylinders all the way down the mountain to the gas truck!

Carrying the gas tanks. What women are for. Turtuk, LadakhWoman carrying empty gas tanks (cylinders) down the mountain in Turtuk village, Ladakh

A momentous demographic group

According to Wikipedia’s “Women in agriculture in India“, in the year 2011, the agricultural sector workforce in the subcontinent was 75% women. Men often go to work in cities where there is more lucrative employment. Yet for a majority of the country, an estimated 72% of the 1.1 billion people who live in rural India, agriculture is the way of life, and it defines “familial tradition, social relations and gender roles”. Women in the agricultural sector represent a “momentous demographic group”.

They work, but they don’t own

Laws enacted after Independence redistributed the land only to male inheritors. The perpetuation of these laws not only limits farm size but also bars women from ownership or inheritance. 

“Despite their dominance of the labor force women in India still face extreme disadvantage in terms of pay, land rights, and representation in local farmers organizations. Furthermore, their lack of empowerment often results in negative externalities such as lower educational attainment for their children and poor familial health.”

What UNICEF has to say

The above picture fits well with the famous UNICEF statistics that women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property.

I have some issues with this. First, I do not understand how this can be calculated. Secondly, I do not like an approach that monetizes everything we do in and for our families. In traditional village societies, money itself was sparsely used. Life was not centered on money, but on family and religion. Much of commerce was done through barter.

Notwithstanding, I am definitely not diminishing the importance of money and ownership, especially in the modern world. Not owning and earning puts women in precarious positions in the family itself and diminishes their ability to control their lives in all spheres. 

Who does the dung work?

Women make cow dung cakes in Allahabad, India.Women make cow dung cakes in Allahabad, India.

Source:    AP 

Even if men share some of the field work, they universally do not touch the dung work. See below.

Women’s dung work is taken for granted

It is not the tropical rainforests that ensure we have enough oxygen to breathe, though they, of course, contribute. It is the tiniest planktonic algae in the world’s oceans that keep the atmosphere oxygenated: Source of Half Earth’s Oxygen gets little Credit”.

Time to take dung work seriously

The dung work executed by millions of Indian women on a daily basis only started to get some credit in 1989 with the publication of the article: “Taking Dung Work Seriously” (full reference below).  

Academic dismissal

Unsurprisingly, the writers claimed that in academic discussions of fuel, dung cakes were dismissed; in discussions on fertilizers, the work women do of turning dung into manure was ignored; in discussions of women’s work, similarly, it rarely made a central focus. Their conclusion:

In part, this is the result of male-oriented approaches to agriculture”. 

So Sacred Service or Dirty (Shit) Work?

In the eye of the beholder? Different views from academia

Different scientists view dung work in remarkably different light. Beyond timely and geographical variations, each has his or her unique approach and viewpoint, perhaps even bias. 

I am mostly quoting from two academic articles,

  1. Jeffery, R., Jeffery, P., & Lyon, A. (1989). Taking dung-work seriously: women’s work and rural development in North India. Economic and Political Weekly, WS32-WS37.
  2. Notermans, C. (2019). Prayers of cowdung: Women sculpturing fertile environments in rural Rajasthan (India). Religions10(2), 71.

I want to emphasize that:

No matter how it is viewed, the value of the work itself is incontestably important in the objective sense and on the vast scale of things.

Beneath Academic Contempt

Contamination – for men!

The 1989 article (Jefrey et al.) states that men are reluctant to even consider doing dung work. Cow dung is work for women, but men are those who own the cattle!

The researchers conclude from interviews that the work connected with dung is derided by men, relegated to women. Men refuse to be “contaminated“. They also refuse to change diapers, for the same reasons.

Women acknowledge: “You know, our men can’t even wipe a child’s snotty nose. Why, if a child urinates on them they hand it over to us straight away. Just imagine what they’d do if they had to deal with baby’s shit or cattle-dung!”

There is evidence that men from the lowest castes and untouchables sometime did this work, but this is rare. On the other hand, “even the Rajput women [a higher caste. OA] of the richest peasant household in Dharmnagri have to do most of their own dung-work.”

A possible criticism of this article is that the research was carried out in two villages, one Hindu, one Muslim, yet the authors do not state in which village the disparaging male comments were heard. The writers do not consider as an option that Hindu women see this work as a religious “sacrament”. (See below where I elaborate on the second article).

Cow dung stocked in summer for winter heating, LehCow dung cakes stocked for winter heating fuel. Leh, Ladakh.

In these two villages women also did all wall plastering and maintenance with the dung. (This is not universal. In the southern village filmed in the Israeli serial, an older man was doing this job). Cow dung is also used in midden to fertilize the sugarcane fields. Men get into the picture only after the dung is dried. At this point it is no longer considered “dung” but “midden fertilizer”.

“Just” another domestic work – for women!

The cash value of the women’s work is significant, but they don’t get anything since it is considered domestic work. They don’t even get an informal credit. This work, like most female work  is “invisible”, but totally essential!

The example of dung-work illuminates how it is possible for what seems clearly to us to be hard manual labour, with considerable financial significance, to be derided locally as women’s work and treated as of no intrinsic value.

The article notes also that in the country, female mortality at all ages, supersedes that of men due to neglect and perhaps maltreatment.

Beneath academic contempt

The research concludes with the statement: 

What we would argue is that they have not taken the dung as seriously as it warrants; and we suggest that this failure is linked to the fact that as women’s work it has wrongly been felt to be beneath the contempt of development specialists.

This, pretty much answers the question regarding whether the work is viewed as “holy service” or “shitwork” in these two particular villages as reported by this study. It is “beneath the contempt”. Yet, as I show below, there are different views. 

Critique of dung work - Energetic Inefficiency

Much critique of the dung work comes from environmental feminists who see it as grand exploitation, an inefficient use of energy, and one way India is kept “backwards”.

Energy-wise this system is highly inefficient

The energy element of this system is questionable. Lidia Powell, the head of the Observer Research Foundation’s Centre for Resources Management, writes in The Globalist (2013). that having human muscle energy wasted to bring in wood or dung is essentially a net negative energy system. By definition it cannot generate any energy “surpluses.” In addition to opportunity costs lost, there is a health cost due to the effect of cooking on open-fire stoves on women’s lungs. 

Traditional energy sources, like wood, twigs and dung, account for over 26% of India’s total primary energy consumption, according to her estimates. That is more than India’s consumption of oil, which stands at 24%. In energy equivalent terms, this energy is rated at 135 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe), and is more than the entire energy consumption of Australia (123 mtoe).

No fuel can be cheaper than unpaid female labor!

Without energy surpluses, the writer argues, economic surpluses cannot be generated, and the country’s quality of life cannot improve. Notably, most government programs that have tried to provide access to better cooking fuels or cooking stoves at a discount have failed. The reason? 

As long as there is a surplus of illiterate poor women, why would millions of poor households in India switch from using firewood and animal dung? After all, no fuel can be cheaper than unpaid female labor!

There is also the issue of methane and CO2 emissions by cows and its effect on global warming, but I do not want to get into this here. One article to read is Impact of Ruminants on Global Warming: Indian and Global Context.

But It's Not All About Efficiency

There’s more to life than efficiency

Different scientists – different vistas

On the other side of the academic spectrum is a  scientific article, written by Catrien Notermans, an associate professor of Radboud University, the Netherlands (see full reference above). It describes 10 years of research in two villages near Udaipur, Rajasthan, and is focused on rituals performed by village women for Divali, India’s festival of lights. 

Published in the journal Religions in 2019, the article is called Prayers of Cow Dung: Women Sculpturing Fertile Environments in Rural Rajasthan (India)“. 

Women kneading sacred cow dung sculptures, Badi 2017Women kneading sacred cow dung sculptures, Badi 2017

Source: photo by Catrien Notermans

Cow dung belongs in the realm of the sacred

First of all, Notermans claims, because of the “nourishing and life-giving capacities, the cow is a symbol of prosperity and fertility, which applies, par excellence, to the cow dung as well.” Furthermore, cow dung – unintuitively for westerners – is perceived as pure, like the mud of the Ghanga.

So cow dung, with the cow herself, is also within the realm of the sacred!

Krishna, Lakshmi and the cow dung

According to her research, the women in rural Rajasthan enjoy their role in the Govardhan puja, dedicated to Krishna, the cowherd god. “When observing the Govardhan worship, I noticed that the women intensely enjoyed the kneading of cow dung.” They share with Krishna a deep love for cows.  Cattle are part of the family and receive women’s “unremitting care and attention”. 

The sculptures also reflect the local environment women share with families, animals and (other) gods. On Divali’s third day (Krishna’s day is the fourth), the goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in the countryside as cow dung:

Lakshmi’s reference to riches, abundance, fertility and the potency
of the earth finds expression in women worshipping her in the form of cow dung. 

Pure gold

Noterman emphasizes:

The cow dung is not ‘dirty shit’ nor animal ‘waste’ but the most precious gift women receive from their cows.

Cows and cow dung are intimately connected in the ecological equilibrium of land, humans, animals, plants and water. This vital link guarantees the villager’s well-being.

The puja reveals a gendered view of the human–nature relationships, a part of women’s cosmology. Only the married women do the kneading because they enjoy the auspicious position to bring fertility and prosperity to the family.

Notermans often heard the expression: ‘cow dung is like pure gold’ (In Israeli sites about dung treatement it is invariably referred to as “waste”].

The gift of ‘gold’ women get from their cows is offered to the gods to beautify and please them and pray for prosperity and good luck. Women told her that “cow dung is so pure, it doesn’t smell,”  and explain it with the cows getting good, organic food: “We collect the fodder in the mountains and in our fields.” When beautifying and protecting the doorstep for Govardhan, the pureness and cleanliness of the cow dung absorbs inauspiciousness and attracts good luck.


At bottom, then, the cow dung is a symbol for fecundity and fertility. The figurines the women knead in the dung depict dreams of prosperity: cattle, land, water, mountains and forests, a healthy and beautiful family, abundance of food. They express their dependence on cows, fields, lakes and mountains, their husbands, and their beloved gods, in attaining this opulence.

In summary, according to this perspective, cow dung is not just a useful crafting material. The very substance itself is divine and god-like and an object of loving care and devotion. 

The auspiciousness of the doorstep

Ceremonies take place at the doorstep, the link between the inner and outer spaces. Both spaces are occupied by women and men, animals and gods.
According to Notermans, what matters is not that in one of these spaces “certain genders are excluded or subjugated”, but that in both inner and outer spaces negative forces and bad luck need to be expelled and positive energies and good luck introduced. To achieve this, men and women, animals and gods need to unite, not divide, in the balanced and ethical ways that are expressed in women’s cow dung sculptures.

Mujeres de Tierra

Juan Rulfo in his book “Pedro Paramo” talked about “mujer hecho de tierra” – woman made of earth. Nobody merits this title more than the Indian rural woman. And it is an honor.

So we should all be thankful for the invisible plankton that allows us to breath, despite all the deforestation, and for women’s invisible work worldwide, a toil of love and surrender that feeds their families and keeps this planet sustainable. Let’s hope improved ways to achieve the same goals will be found, turning the dirt work into the sacred service that it should be with less suffering and more appreciation.

And us? Even surrounded by asphlat, concrete and metal, even as our eyes are glued to two-dimensional screens, fact is we are all part of this Earth, evolved right here with all other creatures and beings, and to Her we shall all return.

Well, it’s a beautiful early spring day. I’m getting off and away from this particular screen and going outside to till some compost and winter greenery into my garden as long as the ground is still wet… 

Tomorrow I’ll do some planting.

My side garden, tilled for spring planting, March, 2019

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. An amazing story. Considering that cow milk is far from being a recommended diet, this cow worship – taking care of them, drinking milk and using the dung – looks to me like a vicious circle. Taken that this circle exists, it is ecological to collect the dung, but the whole circle does not seem to be ecological and it is humiliating.

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