Most people know that in India the cow is considered sacred. In the Hindu religion, the cow is revered as the source of food and a symbol of life and may never be killed. But, it was not always so. It was not until the early centuries AD that the cow was designated as a gift to the brahmans and was soon said that killing a cow was akin to killing a brahman. Perhaps, it was for practical reasons as well as spiritual ones. The cow provided key essentials for survival including milk, butter for lamps, fuel from dried dung and more.
Today, in fact, the use of dung is still prevasive. About half of the usable cow dung in India is used as fertilizer; the other is used for fuel. Dung is often collected while it is still steaming and shaped in pancake-like patties, which are dried and stored and later used as cooking fuel. One survey found that dung was the sole source of cooking and heating fuel in nine out of ten rural households in the 1970s. Cow dung is often preferred over kerosene because it burns with a clean, slow, long-lasting flame that doesn't overheat the food.
Cow dung is also mixed with water to make a paste which is used as flooring material and wall cover. Cow dung is such a prized material that a great efforts is made to collect it. Of course, that chore falls to women and children. Its value remains extremely high today.
Cow urine is distilled to make it drinkable. Dental powder is made from cow urine. In fact, cow dung has been used for centuries as a medicine. Today, it is now made into pills.
Yes, most people know the cow is sacred in India. Though, I have to admit I was taken aback when I watched a young woman mixing dung and water and spreading it by hand on the hardened clay floor of a cooking area to “sanitize” it. I can find no documentation that supports that notion. Upon completing the work, my host asked the young woman to prepare tea. She rinsed her hands with water from the nearby pump and headed inside to make the tea. I quietly leaned over and told my host, “I appreciate the ritual of drinking tea with guests, but there was no way I was going to touch this particular cup of tea.” Cow dung may be the valuable byproduct of a sacred animal; however, I was quite certain that my western stomach held little faith in its efficacy as a way to sanitize a cooking surface.