COVID-19 Impact: Century-Old Practice Of Using Green Fuel For Cremation Facing An End In Odisha’s Gajapati

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Berhampur: Among numerous social practices that have been severely impacted by COVID-19 pandemic is the century-old eco-friendly method of cremation of bodies in Paralakhemundi.

It has been a practice in the district headquarters of Gajapati district to cremate the dead bodies with specially made dry cow dung cakes available abundantly in about 8 outlets across the town. The only practice in the entire country has been given a burial by the pandemic as firewood has come to use.

Firewood was used for cremation earlier in Paralakhemundi. After former Maharaja Krushna Chandra Gajapati opened a diary farm in the area, milk production got a major boost. It also produced a huge quantity of cow dung everyday prompting many to go for the cremation of dead bodies with the use of cow dung cakes instead of firewood.

“The use of cow dung cakes in funeral turned a practice as it not only solved the problem of garbage but also saved the firewood thereby the green cover,” said Bira Kishore Patnaik, president of Karan Samaj.

Bita has attended more than 2000 funerals till date including 33 since the lockdown in April. He also attended the funeral of 6 COVID-19 patients.

Explaining this method of cremation, Bira said one has to dig a pit of about 5 feet long and 2 feet wide with same depth in the crematorium. Around 500 cow dung cakes in 10 lines (50X10) in two layers are packed in the pit to allow air into it. One has to ignite the remaining cow dung cakes separately.

When the body is kept over the cow dung cakes and funeral pyre is lit, others pour the burning cow dung over the dead body and it catches fire with the help of kerosene, Bira said.

Since the burnt cow dung cakes remain hot upto 18 hours, the ‘asthi’ (bone) of the body is generally taken out next morning by pouring water on it. About 1,500 pieces of cow dung cakes are required to burn one body in six hours, he said.

There are four crematoriums in Paralakhemundi including the river bank of Mahendratanaya, Hatibadi, the road side towards Panchalingeswar temple and near Sita Sagar. About 15 dead bodies are cremated in these four places each day.

The price of the cow dung cakes required to cremate one dead body with large sized cakes (6-inch radius and 1.5-inch width) was about Rs 2500 before the COVID-19 lockdown.  But now the production of large cow dung cakes has stopped since April last. The cremation is conducted by small size cow dung cakes which were in stock.

But the rate of cremating one dead body with small size cakes which is in short supply has gone up to Rs 9000 while the firewood costs Rs 12,000.

Annapurna Amma and Ratnalu of Khanja Sahi and Kantaru Gouda of Odia Bhandari Sahi in Paralakhemundi who have been producing cow dung cakes since decades said they are unable to collect cow dung due to lockdown restrictions. It has cut down the production and increased the prices, they added.

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