Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gorha – the dung cake and its significance

Take some cow dung, some rice husk, some straw and a bucket of water. Knead the cow dung (you can add buffalo dung to it as well) properly with both hands. If the dung is hard, put some water and mix it well. Make a long cylindrical structure out of the mixture measuring to an arm’s length and open it in the middle like you open pods of a pea. Put a handful of straw in between and close the structure, pour a handful of rice husk so that the dung mixture doesn’t stick on your palms and flatten the structure. Make similar structure and arrange them lengthwise in a row, around four to five in a straight line. Now you are ready with your first lot of cow dung cakes, better called gorha in the Terai. Next day, the dung cakes get a little bit harder, hard enough to hold the weight of next round of four to five cakes above them. Then you can pile up another round of fresh cakes on it column-wise if you arranged the ground set row-wise. Continue the same the following day and the days following after till your pile of cakes gain a height of around three feet. After a months’ soaking in sun, the cakes get ready to be used.

Dung cake varieties
While gorha is the regular dung cake, chipri is the smaller version of the dung cakes. Usually ones who don’t have cattle of their own collect the dung from grazing fields and make small round patches of dung cakes by sticking them to walls for drying. Once dried, the cakes are collected and stored in a dry place for future use. Here, straw is not used and even the rice husk is avoided.

The dried dung collected from the grazing field is simply called goitha. It is ready to use for cooking.

The bigger form of the dung cakes is gorhaini, which is similar to the gorha but is a longer variant measuring even upto five feet. Instead of putting straw in the middle of the cake, jute twigs are used. Rice husk is used as in the gorha. They are not piled as gorha, but are left standing by a wall or fence to dry.

Manifold benefits
The dung cakes are used extensively in cooking along with the timber, hay, dry leaves, bamboo culms and dry twigs in the Terai. In comparison to the other fuelwood, the dung cakes burn longer. That’s why the dung cakes are mixed with other fuelwood while cooking to save the timber. The calorific value of the dung cakes is lower, but as it burns slower, it is preferred for heating rooms in winter and cooking.

The proponents of modern technologies claim that dung cakes produce lots of smoke and ash as residue. The one and only way to minimise the smoke and ash and get more heat is to dry the dung cakes well before burning.

Not long ago, the dung cakes were used to save the fire – and again light when needed, in absence of matchsticks. Thanks to the technology and easily available cheap matchsticks, the dung cakes are no more used for the purpose. However, the poorest ones in rural villages still rely on the dung cakes to ignite fire.

Besides providing more heat and burning for a longer period of time, the dung cakes have another advantage – they work as mosquito repellents as well. The mosquitoes keep away when the dung cakes are burnt.

The ash from the burnt dung cakes are put in the fields as manure. It is also used to wash the utensils. The ash works as a perfect cleaner, replacing the scrubber and washing powder.

I am not sure, how good it is for cleaning teeth, but you can still find few old people in the rural villages who brush their teeth with the ash from the dung cakes and you will be shocked to see their teeth, sparkling like pearls.

Dwindling use
The dung cakes, in spite of the manifold benefits, are accused of causing respiratory diseases. Figures show that the children and women are the worst sufferers and the cause being smoke in the kitchen. However, the smoke can easily be managed with the advent of improved cook stoves. The cook stoves in the rural villages need to be modified to save the women and children from the pulmonary diseases, instead of stopping the use of dung cakes for cooking.

Modern technologies like biogas are slowly replacing the dung cakes. Now the dung is well mixed and hauled in the digester which produces the methane gas and slurry as the by-product. The gas is used for smoke-free cooking and the slurry can be used as a bio-fertiliser in the fields.

As the cooking is hassle-free, smoke free and even the utensils are cleaner, more and more people are opting for the biogas plants. However, as the initial set-up of the biogas digester is expensive, the poor populace has not been able to take the benefits of the modern technology.

In spite of the dwindling use of dung cakes and introduction of incense sticks, you will still find rural people using the chopped pinewood and dung cakes for the daily worship. It is still considered to be more pure form of offering to the Gods. Especially, the cow dung cakes are preferred to other fuelwood and timber while performing the pooja or worship.

Bridge between two major Tharu festivals/rituals
The dung cakes are special in Tharu culture. Two major festivals/rituals celebrated by the Tharus are linked by the dung cake chipri. Tharus make godaha/godahaini (of human form) from the cow dung and leave it for the night in the gahli, the cowshed on the fourth day (Govardhan Pooja) of the Hindu festival Deepawali/Tihar. The next day, the godaha/godahaini is made into a chipri, dried and stored in a safe place.

The same chipri is used to light fire and cook the first grain harvested from the field and offered to the home deity. The ritual is called Neman. It is celebrated in honour of the new harvest and is celebrated in the month of November. Only after celebrating Neman, the Tharus consume the newly harvested grain.

Due to the cultural significance of dung cakes, they will never vanish from the scene though with the modernisation, their use is decreasing. With the declining trend, we at least need to know how to make dung cakes, not just to keep our traditions alive but also to feel proud about it. The bottomline is, gobar, the cow dung is not only holy but also has healing properties!