Fire. Witnessing trees. A desperate chill. And a whiff of collective madness. These were the elements that ordained this mysterious circle of 17 persons.
Manish signalled to me that it was time, so I went first — not before telling the group that one of the edges we had to explore in the days ahead was disgust, and how the things we feel repulsed by hold clues about the kinds of social-material frameworks we already inhabit. I then sat on a log of wood, raised my head to meet Manish’s gaze, and held out my hands as one would do when making supplication to the gods above. For what I was about to receive in return for my prayerful gesture, the moment was thick with perverse irony. Clad in a camo winter jacket, awkward head gear, and a blanket-scarf, Manish stirred the contents of the white ceramic bowl with his fingers, scooped up a generous amount, and pressed it on my face — covering my forehead, my cheeks, my chin, and nose with the stuff. He asked the circle to make a clicking sound with their tongues as I — and others after me — received this blessing. This anointing of sorts. I closed my eyes as the cold grimy mixture kissed my skin. When he was done, he placed a huge lump of the stuff between my cupped palms.
It was cow shit. Glorious cow shit. Green, brown, wild, and overpoweringly alive. We had obtained a fresh bucketful a farm away, mixed it with neem leaves and the spirit of a bonfire. Now it was on my face, like bees on a jar of honey. I stood up and retook my place in the circle. An hour or so later, we were all covered in shit (except two students who opted out for personal reasons), our faces a mishmash of toothy grins and green grime. The jokes came easy (“This is some good shit!” “We are having a bit of a shit-uation here!”) and then we shared stories and wise sayings in the womb of the forest as the shit dried up and stiffened our faces, so that many of us could hardly talk. I looked around, taking in all the faces: given that we had advertised that session as a “cow dung ritual,” it was amazing to me that everyone showed up. I had expected the students to scoff at some of the other processes we had earmarked for the week — “Death Walk,” “Powerful Questions,” “Composting Ourselves,” “Shop of the Open Heart” — but that didn’t happen.
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