From a hole in the ground to the 'rumble throne'

If you lived in ancient India, you would have to observe a strict code of toilet etiquette that determined how often or where you could relieve yourself, depending on whether you were single, married, a student or a saint.

You can find this and other toilet trivia at the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi, a bit of an oddity in a country where an estimated 700-million people defecate in the open.

The museum traces the history of toilets back 5 000 years and aims to educate people about the health and social aspects of sanitation. It has models from 60 countries of chamber pots, ornately-carved commodes, delicately-painted floral urinals, water closets, and the seats of kings and commoners.

From the primitive “hole in the ground” to the state-of-the-art waterless microwave toilet of the United States navy, from potty poems to bawdy bathroom humour, the Sulabh museum gives an interesting insight into something we take for granted every day.

In 1994 Indian social reformer Bindeshwar Pathak opened the museum, apparently the only one of its kind in the world. Since 1970, Pathak’s Sulabh International Social Service Organisation has revolutionised India’s toilet culture by starting the first public toilets that are used by more than 10-million people every day, and rehabilitating scavengers—a lower caste group forced to clean and carry excreta.

India banned scavenging in 1993, but even today 800 000 men and women carry buckets of human waste on their heads.

Most public space in India is unfortunately also toilet space.

It’s quite normal to find men urinating against walls, or people squatting every morning outside slums near railway tracks or in fields.

Pathak says 110-million Indian homes do not have toilets.

According to the Indian census, 77% of homes in rural areas and 30% of homes in urban areas don’t have toilets.
But they do have television.

Yet India gave the world its first toilets and drainage systems, dating five thousand years back to the Indus Valley civilisation.

In places like Dolavira, Lothal and Mohenjodaro in 2500 BC, houses had toilets connected to drains and water chutes that emptied into an elaborate underground maze of sewers.

“The Indus Valley had a sophisticated toilet culture. You can judge the quality of a toilet depending on its disposal system,” said curator Bageshwar Jha.

The Manusmriti and Vishnupuran, ancient Hindu scriptures, had toilet etiquette codes for married people, such as, “While observing silence and facing north in the day and south in the night one could defecate.”

There were different rules for bachelors, ascetics and students, with the celibate observing them more strictly than married people. The code said people should go to the toilet only during the day, reduce their usage by half at night, and by another half while travelling. There were instructions on how far from a temple or source of water you could squat.

Jha said people may grimace at the sight of Indians easing themselves in public, but France’s King Louis XIII actually had a commode built under his throne. The museum has a replica of the “rumble throne”, which apparently prompted the court jester to remark how strange it was for the king to eat in private but defecate in public.

Jha stops at a pile of giant leather-bound works of Shakespeare.

Lift the first cover to find a hidden commode.

“Such book toilets were popular among the wealthy French, and symbolised their rivalry with the British. Toilets became very ornamental because people wanted to disguise the purpose they were used for,” he said.

The Romans made relieving themselves a public affair, said Jha.

The Antonius Bath, built in 200 BC, had 1 600 holes for defecation, neatly arranged in semicircles with water flowing underneath.

Yet, it took thousands of years for the civilised world to get an efficient and hygienic waste disposal system.

“In medieval Europe people threw buckets of waste out of their windows at night. That’s why women started wearing stilettos,” Jha explained.

In 1641 pigs were let loose on the streets of Europe to eat human waste, but by 1688 the police commissioner of Paris made toilet construction in houses mandatory. By 1771 Europe had its first pay-and-use toilets.

The museum explains the evolution of the water closet, first credited to John Harington in 1596. An improved model, incorporating a stink trap, was devised by watchmaker Alexander Cumming in 1775. These were connected to cesspits, but the stench was unbearable.

Thomas Crapper, royal plumber to King Edward VII, is believed to have revolutionised the water closet. The stink solution was found in the 1840s with the creation of a modern sewer system in Hamburg that ensured pipes were regularly flushed with river water.

Did you ever wonder where toilet paper came from? It was invented in the United States in 1857 by Joseph Cayetty. Before that people used anything from linen, thread waste, leaves, stones and pages from books.

Other toilet marvels came from the US In 1966, a Chicago hairdresser created the buttock-stimulator seat, which gave you a massage and relieved constipation.

In 1993, the Incinolet electric toilet was developed by the United States Navy for submarines. Operated on electricity, it is water-free and at the press of a button reduces waste to ash.

“The toilet is a problem of civilised man because you can’t just go anywhere. We must make the experience a pleasant one. In Amsterdam, a talking toilet welcomes you when you sit,” said Jha. - Sapa-DPA

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