Never thought I’d be doing a post on cow dung! I’m guessing this post would also apply to dung of other herbivorous animals which put out dung of the same consistency. My earliest encounter with dung was on my way to school when I sometimes trod on it. In school we used to call it cutting the cake. It was the worst thing that could happen to one of us -if you overlook instances when we accidentally trod on dog or human dung in which case, “kill me now” would be the most appropriate thing to say.

Drying cow dung in Brittany, France c. 1900 (Wikipedia)

However cow dung isn’t as horrible as it seems if the cow ate her natural diet such as grass and other green things which have less protein. Partly, what made cow dung look and smell so awful was because the cows would eat from city garbage dumps, sometimes even eating partly decomposed and cooked food along with the plastic bag it was wrapped in.

Back home in Udupi, in the Tulu language we have two words which would roughly translate to verandah – Jagali and Jaal; The first one represents the open sitting place that is part of traditional houses have at the entrance of the house -basically it is a sitting room with low walls which are flattened to facilitate sitting. Pillars support the roof which is common to the rest of the house. Daily wage workers who came to my grandmother’s house to do odd jobs in the garden often ended up taking a siesta on them for their afternoon break from the hot sun or the rain. The latter (Jaal) was an open clearing in front of the entrance to the jagali which was swept with a mixture of cow dung and water which formed a thin layer of cow dung plaster over the soil which would help keep down dust which would otherwise end up inside the house. It was also a clear area where food stuff could be dried in the sun and a dividing area between the wooded area around the house and the house itself. Snakes would be averse to cross such a large area of cleared ground as they would be easily spotted by people as well as predators. My uncle improvised (?) on this by adding an olive green stainer (ugh!!) used for staining distemper to the ‘water-cow dung’ mixture and their house stood out by having an olive green jaal which looked cool then compared to the pale brown cow dung colored jaal of others. I hate the idea now of introducing synthetic coloring agents into the ground.

The other thing I remember from childhood in Bombay was the small east Indian community which lived in Vikhroli village. That was the closest place for us to go to buy fruits, vegetables, groceries, fish, meat or stationery. The residents who were predominantly Catholic used to rear pigs, chickens, ducks and buffaloes. A familiar sight here were the stone walls which were plastered with cow dung shaped into discs. At that time I wasn’t curious as to what they did with them. Now having traveled over most of north India, I see them every where. In fact in north India, they are heaped into large piles after they are dried and then the whole pile is plastered with cow dung to keep it safe from the elements. When required, it is broken open at one end and the dung plates retrieved as required. These are used for burning, either as fuel for cooking or for heating during the winter. Smoldering/smoking cow dung is also known to drive away mosquitoes. The cow dung cakes can be broken up if required and used as manure for potted or garden plants. There have been incidents of arsenic poisoning due to burning such cakes, due to chemicals ingested by the cows when grazing on grass treated with weed killers or other pesticides. This should however contaminate the meat and milk as well.

Cakes drying outside a house at Shivpuri, Rishikesh
Cakes drying outside a house at Shivpuri, Rishikesh. These will be stored and used for cooking and for warmth in winter. They might also be left smoldering to drive off mosquitoes in the night.

In and around Bihar, I noted innovative uses of cow dung. Plastering the floor and walls of the shanties and lean to’s were common everywhere. Walls were made up of split bamboo woven in a couple of places with cordage and stuck into the ground. They were then plastered with cow dung from inside and out to seal off the gaps and to keep out both the hot wind called loo in summer and the biting cold in winter. Cow dung is a good insulator when used for plastering walls. In addition they had improvised firewood by tying up small bundles of short sticks (2-3 feet long) together and then stuffing/smearing it with cow dung till there were no gaps left and it resembled a log. ( I learned on a later trip that those were not sticks but dried jute stalks, but any straight sticks should work)  This was then left leaning against the fence till it dried in the sun after which it was ready to be used as firewood. This gives a longer burn time compared to burning the sticks by themselves.

In Himachal, the cow shed is spread with the thick papery leaves of the Himalayan Oak (Banj). This is trod upon by the goats, sheep and cows which also urinate and defecate on them. This also provides some insulation from the cold ground when the animals lie down in winter. Once in a while this is swept out and makes excellent manure which is used in the fields for growing ginger, corn and wheat among other crops. In the place I visited, the cow dung was kneaded to form something like a loaf or a large briquette which was then left to dry. The cows over there are always tethered in the cow shed, probably due predatory animals like leopards in the vicinity. Back home in south India, the cows are either tethered in the open or left under the supervision of a cowherd. I’ve often seen cowherds follow the cows with a wicker basket to collect dung to take home or to their owners.

Making  your very own cow dung cake, briquette or disc 


Get your hands on some dung...
Get your hands on some dung…
Knead the dung thoroughly till it achieves uniform consistency
Knead the dung thoroughly till it achieves uniform consistency
This is how it should look when it is done.
This is how it should look when it is done.
You can shape it into a plate if required. This will dry faster than the briquette. I suspect that it will burn faster as well.
You can shape it into a plate if required. This will dry faster than the briquette. I suspect that it will burn faster as well.

These discs can be put out to dry either by sticking them onto a vertical surface as shown in the first picture, or set to dry on the ground after sprinkling a layer or chopped rice straw or hay to prevent soil from sticking to them when wet.

“I was busily engaged making my daguerreotype views of the country, over which I had to travel the next day. On looking through my camera I observed two of our men approaching over a slope, holding between them a blanket filled with something; curious to know what it was, I hailed them, and found they had been gathering “dried buffalo chips,” to build a fire with. This material burns like peat, and makes a very hot fire, without much smoke, and keeps the heat a long time; a peculiar smell exhales from it while burning, not at all unpleasant. But for this material, it would be impossible to travel over certain parts of this immense country. It served us very often, not only for cooking purposes but also to warm our half frozen limbs. I have seen chips of a large size—one I had the curiosity to measure, was two feet in diameter.”

Adventures in the far west by S. N. Carvalho (1856)

Credits: Asha Singh 

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  1. Hi,

    Its a nice article, you have shared a lot of information on the cow dung, i just want your views on this idea, this is a challenge for building a tent for refugee camps, especially for syria, as the winter is approaching. I am looking to use dung cake based flooring.For this challenge as they may have a good insulation capacity, moreover i feel they will take time to catch up fire as well in summer.


    1. Hi Venkatesh. I tried to understand your concept but I am not quite familiar with algae frames. Regarding using cow dung as insulation, since it is fibrous, I’m sure it would work. However dried cow dung would be quite brittle and would fall off a canvas on flexing. For using cow dung as an insulator, it would be best to pour it between two partitions made of wood or other materials. Similarly for the floor. If the weight of a person were to fall directly on the thick cow dung insulation, it would break into pieces. Glad that we have people like you thinking out of the box about the environment. Hope you succeed in your endeavor to help the refugees.

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