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Toilet Tales From Far And Wide - KS Narayanan - The Sunday Indian
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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Toilet Tales From Far And Wide


A unique Delhi-based museum of sanitation practices from the world over holds many fascinating insights into the often unspeakable KS Narayanan
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: November 3, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Toilet Tales From Far And Wide |

Though 'shit matters'  is an issue that needs our attention in terms of personal and community hygiene and the well being of entire humanity it does not get all the attention it deserves. Of course, it is a very personal that even matters of stomach upset and constipation are discussed with a doctor in a hush-hush manner.
So many other human functions like food, sex or recreation have been blessed with rich literature, defecation is considered very lowly.

As a result very few scholars have documented the toilet habits of our predecessors. The Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (1913) Charles Richet attributes this silence to the disgust that arises from noxiousness and lack of usefulness of human waste. Others point out that as sex organs are the same or nearer to the organs of defecation, those who dared to write on toilet habits were dubbed either erotic or vulgar and thus despised in academic and social circles. It was true, for example, of Urdu poets in India, English poets in Britain and French poets in France. However, as the need to defecate is irrepressible, so were some writers who, despite social as well as academic stigma, wrote on the subject and gave us at least an idea with regard to the toilet habits of human beings. Based on this rudimentary information, one can say that development in civilisation and sanitation has been co-terminus. The more developed was the society, the more sanitised it became and vice versa.

Toilet is part of the history of human hygiene, which is a critical chapter in the history of human civilisation and which cannot be isolated. Toilet is a critical link between order and disorder and between good and bad environment.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sauchalaya technology and who established the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in mid-90s writes on the neglect and ignorance of toilets.

"In India, how can anyone ignore the subject of toilet when the society is faced with human excretions of the order of 900 million litres of urine and 135 million kilograms of faecal matter per day with totally inadequate system of its collection and disposal? The society, thus, has a constant threat of health hazards and epidemics. As many as 600 out of 900 million people do open defecation. Sewerage facilities are available to no more than 30 per cent of population in urban areas and only 3 per cent of rural population has access to pour flush latrines. "

It was only in the 16th century that a technological breakthrough came about and which helped human beings to have clean toilets in houses. This breakthrough did not come about easily and the human race had to live in insanitary conditions for thousands of years (See table History of Toilets).

The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets was established with the help of curators like Dr. Frittz Lischka from Austria and 80 to 90 other professionals around the world. The museum traces the history of toilets for the last 4500 years.

Sanitation has been the index of civilization and the museum artefacts are displayed chronologically to map the developments beginning from Indus Valley civilisation of the third millennium BC progressing on to the latest developments till the end of 20th century. The museum also displays write-ups on and drawings and replicas of toilets and sanitation practices from ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Jerusalem, Crete and Rome.

Located in West Delhi, Sulabh Museum may be very small when compared to many museums in India and abroad. But it is certainly thought-provoking that we know so little about the way we dispose human waste.

It is worth mentioning that some of the models in the Sulabh Museum of International Toilets are the one used by French Monarchy. King Louis XIII and Louis the XIV used to give audience while using the toilet. King Louis the XIII, actually had a commode under his throne, which prompted his court jester to remark that he found it a bit strange that while the king preferred to eat in privacy, he chose to ease himself in public. The replica of the throne of Louis the XIII is now on display at the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.

Britain in ancient times created fantasies in stoneware toilets and bath. Ornately carved and painted urinals and commodes attract attention and are a source of amusement to many. The pictures of medieval commodes immediately are noteworthy. The picture of medieval mobile commodes in the shape of a treasure chest, which the English used while camping out for a hunt, is fascinating.

Also in the display are replicas of toilets which use less water and also compost the waste. Also the emergence of micro wave toilet during 1990s has been exhibited.

Today, there is virtually a competition in toilet manufacturing. Matushita Electric of Japan has recently unveiled a toilet seat equipped with electrodes that send a mild electric charge, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio. Rival company Inax has sought to upstage it with a new toilet that glows in the dark and whirs up its lids after an infra-red sensor detects a human presence. When in use, the toilet plays any of six soundtracks, including chirping birds and rushing water.

Toto Toilets, the Japanese toilet giant, came out with the Wellyoull, a toilet that automatically measures the urine-sugar level by making a collection with a spoon held by a retractable mechanical arm.

Modern times are no different and toilets have fascinated the wealthy. Late jewellery mogul Lam Sai Wing of Hong Kong had a unique toilet in his store. It has two 24 carat gold commodes along with toilet bowls, wash basins, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, mirror frames,  wall mounted chandeliers, wall tiles and doors all made of solid gold. People have to purchase Hong Kong $1000 of jewellery for the privilege of using the toilet.

London suffered the plague in 1665 owing to lack of sanitation. In 1843 Frederich Engels wrote a valuable dissertation on the inadequate drainage facilities and toilets of England. Four years later Britain passed the Sanitation Law.

According to the literature published by the museum there was lot of jest and humour relating to toilet habits and toilet appurtenances. Ballets were performed with basket of night soil in the form of hood, on the head or a tin plate commode moving around with toilet sounds. The clothes were spotted with accessories from the toilet. The actors were etronice (night soil) Sultan Prime of Foirince (i.e. diarrhoea) etc. There are stories given by Guerrand 6) which depict the mood of Europe at that time. A lady of noble birth requested a young man to hold his hand. The young man suddenly feels the urge to urinate. Forgetting that he is holding the hand of a lady of noble birth he relieves himself. At the end, he says: "Excuse me Madam, there was lot of urine in my body and was causing great inconvenience".

Similarly Maid of Honour Anne of Austria owing to excessive laughter, urinated in the bed of the queen. Joseph Pujol (hero extraordinary of French scatology) in his shows demonstrated many types of farts i.e. young girl, mother-in-law, and bride. He could even extinguish a candle 30 centimetres away through his farting.

French poet Piron called the faeces as 'Royal Nightsoil. Though ostracised by the academic community, he wrote as follows:

"What am I seeing oh! God It is night soil                                     

What a wonderful substance it is It is excreted by the greatest of all Kings Its odour speaks of majesty"

Back home the Urdu poet Sheikh Baqir Ali Chirkeen was not well recognised by his fraternity. Out of vengeance and to create embarrassment he wrote on human waste and farting. There is an English version translated from Urdu,

"The asset which I will earn now will all be invested in toilet. This time when I visit your home, I will never 'pee' there."

Museums, according to Dr Pathak, are no longer an urban show-pieces with an elitist clientele. “Museums are slowly and steadily becoming the instruments of social uplift. The success of a museum lies in how quickly and completely it is integrated with the community”. It is for this reason currently the Sulabh is also working on an Encyclopaedia of Sanitation which would be a valuable database containing information gathered from various countries pertaining to sanitation practices followed there and the history of sanitation.

The main aim of the Encyclopaedia is to provide a succinct, systematic and readable guide to facts, events, issues, beliefs, culture and achievements which constitute knowledge about ‘sanitation’ in its entirety.

To sum up, septuagenarian writer, photographer and television presenter Lady Lucinda Lambton of Britain who often talks about the subject for which she is an acknowledged authority and who authored Temples of Convenience: And Chambers of Delight, writes: “The lavatory is an intimate friend to us all and we should jolly well honour it as such”.
These and more tales of toilets have a definite message that as far as human health is concerned, the toilet deserves no less attention than the kitchen.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017