Holy smoke arising from Hindu funeral pyres, Muslim cemeteries and Buddhist temples are responsible for almost a quarter of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming on the Indian subcontinent and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, a new study has claimed.
Researchers have long suspected that the rituals of religious devotion in India, Nepal and South Asia, may be a factor in the level of brown carbon and soot which pollutes the air in the region, but until now little work has been done to quantify the size of the problem.
According to researchers from US state Nevada's Desert Research Institute and the Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University in west Indian state Chhattisgarh, the impact is "huge" - 23 per cent of particles from human burnt fossil fuels in the atmosphere and a major source of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, a report in the Telegraph said.
Between 2011 and 2012, the researchers measured emissions from marriage ceremonies, funeral cremations, incense sticks in temples and graveyards, and found mango bark, cow dung, camphor, leaves, vermillion, and cow urine being burned.
They identified fourteen "deadly" volatile organic compounds, including formaldehyde, benzene, styrene and butadiene, they told Nature magazine.
They discovered that Hindu funeral pyres emitted large amounts of 'brown carbon aerosol' gases, regarded as the second largest contributor to global warming, which absorb sunlight and give out heat.
Their dark particles settle on snow and glaciers causing them to warm and melt.
Much of this pollution is overlooked because it is shrouded by human loss and religious worship and identity, but the research team has warned the scale of its environmental damage demands further study.
"There are three million religious places of worship in India alone and over 10 million marriages take place every year in this country according to the 2011 census.
"When these results were multiplied to fit these scales, the quantum of emissions was just baffling," researcher Shamsh Pervez said.