At a Museum for Toilets, Perspectives on Public Sanitation

"Many kingdoms arose, and they all followed the same system: they made palaces but not toilets."

When Time magazine published a round-up of ‘the ten weirdest museums in the world’ in 2014, one dedicated to toilets in New Delhi’s Palam-Dabri Road made it to the list. Prior to this flash of media fame, the NGO behind Delhi’s Sulabh International Museum of Toilets had successfully lobbied the UN to declare November 19 as World Toilet Day. Even earlier, in 2007, it had co-organised the World Toilet Summit under the banner ‘Toilets for all’.

I first got wind of the toilet museum from a young Israeli student who was looking for a way to pass time near the airport during a stopover en route to the Northeast. He impressed upon me that his exercise in passing time had been unexpectedly informative, so much so that I visited the museum for myself on a recent visit to Delhi. On a crisp January morning, at the museum’s threshold, I was met by a perky tour guide who parked my suitcase and, in a jiffy, assembled a group of English-speakers to take me around a room crammed with toilets, toilet humour and toilet history.

After a quick spiel about the museum’s history and routine reference to Time magazine, she took us around her toilet highlights. Chief among these was what looked like a regular card table. The story went that English gentlemen travelling on hunting-shooting expeditions would use the ‘table’ to “eat and play cards on” and, lifting its lid, to “shit in”, she said. Next up was a replica of a French-owned table made to look like a cloth-bound book representing the English classics. Concealing a toilet bowl under its lid, it provided a quick release for French-English enmity.

The card table. Photo: Aileen Blaney

More reproductions of chamber pots and commodes followed; Victorian ones embellished with hand-painted botanical designs stole a good deal of the limelight. Our guide’s special mention was reserved for a replica of a toilet bowl mounted into King Louis XIV’s throne, enabling him to continue to hold court whatever the time of day. At a different end of the social spectrum, serious card-players in olden day clubs could avail of plush captain’s chairs fit with toilet bowls to stay present in the game.

As the tour progressed anticlockwise around the room, chronology and technology moved closer to the contemporary. On one wall hung a photo of a toilet bought by NASA from the Russians for $19 million (Rs 135.3 crore), said to be the world’s most expensive toilet and singular in its capacity to convert urine into drinking water. Toilet trivia also caught up with the present: an image of Jennifer Lopez in a body clinging mini-dress illustrated a story about the jewel-encrusted toilet seat gifted her by her then-fiancée, Ben Affleck. “Jennifer is my princess and she deserves only the best even when it comes to toilets,” he reportedly told a friend.

Not far from J-Lo, a gilt frame held a black and white image of an elephant sitting on a rather large toilet seat with the words ‘Big Lesson’ in red. Elephant handlers at a camp in Chiang Mai had trained the pachyderms to keep the tourist spot clean of droppings. A little further along hung what resembled pink codpieces. These were in fact instruments that allowed women, who got a call in the wild, to pee without having to drop their pants. Our guide was especially keen to share ‘Su-Jok Therapy’, a Korean technique that enabled you to keep your “pants clean”. The method involved moving a pencil three or four times around the palm of your hand to relieve pressure from the muscle that controlled urination. “Try sometime and feel the magic,” the poster suggested.

A photograph of an elephant trained to use a toilet designed for humans at the Chiang Mai elephant camp. Photo: Aileen Blaney

After my tour ended, another one in Hindi moved around the room. I continued to hang around hoping to catch a few more tidbits when one of the museum’s chief curators, Manoj Kumar approached me, offering his assistance. When I told him I wanted to know more about India’s history of sanitation, he cut straight to the Harappan settlements in 2,500 BC, when “the whole place was urban civilisation” and “in every household there was a toilet; beneath the house, there were outlets connected to underground drains ending outside the city.”

As he explained it, a thousand years of subsequent “fighting” between the Aryans and the Dravidians, and a possible flood, eventually led to the disappearance of the Harappans’ indoor toilets and drainage systems, and people started “going out”. Photographs on display showed archaeological remains of a wet toilet at Mohenjo-Daro and an underground drain in Dholavira in Gujarat, both dated 2,500 BC.

Also read: The World Needs More Toilets – But Not Ones That Flush

Sometime between 1,500 BC and the second century AD, when people got into the habit of “going outside”, they frequented places close to water sources. “The learned people knew that water was being contaminated, so when they started writing religious books, they connected religion and water preservation,” Kumar said as we stood in front of a 1,500-BC shloka from the Manusmriti Vishnu Puran. “Urination ought to be done at least [at] a distance of 10 hands form the source of water” and “defecation to be done at a distance of 100 hands,” it advised, alongside illustrations of a temple and a woman pulling water from a well.

“Many kingdoms arose, and they all followed the same system: they made palaces but no toilets,” Kumar continued. “They were going out for defecation. The whole village, they all go out together and sit together. Maybe they were afraid of wild animals or neighbouring kingdoms. The king also was going with them.” He then described the dry latrines to squat over, built within palace campuses and which captured soldiers would have the job of cleaning out. “This is the time manual scavenging in India started,” he said.

Ten-foot-deep circular pits puncture the museum’s entire courtyard. I asked Kumar to explain what all the deep wells were about. “These are toilets we’re actually constructing in rural India,” he said, before he took me on a tour of their two-pit pour-flush toilets as well. These cost-effective toilets have been designed by the museum’s parent organisation, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (SISSO), an NGO that the Gandhian Bindeshwar Pathak set up in 1970 to eradicate India of manual scavenging.

The cost of building a twin-pit toilet. Photo: Aileen Blaney

Kumar explained that although the modern sewage system has been the most effective one to date – and Kolkata was the third city in the world to adopt it in 1870 (only two decades after it debuted in London and one after New York) – its cost remains prohibitive for many Indians. According to the 2011 Census, dry latrines exist in all states and UTs except Goa, Sikkim, Chandigarh and Lakshadweep. Aware that only 20% of urban India is connected to a sewage system as well as of the realpolitik blocking its extension, SISSO started working on a more affordable alternative.

“Dr Pathak did a lot of surveys and research,” Kumar said of the organisation’s founder. Starting in the 1970s, Pathak pioneered the twin-pit model in an effort to end the bucket toilet – “hygienically, it’s not good; socially it’s not good,” Kumar said – and manual scavenging. The SISSO composting toilet is a squatting latrine connected to two flanking pits located outdoors, at a distance of a few feet. The toilet is designed such that gravity draws the waste from the toilet into the pit, and where methane is slowly released into the surrounding soil. “We don’t allow the methane to enter the atmosphere, and after one year of decomposing, it’s safe for manual handling” and the waste is “good for plants”.

Looking into one of the pics… Photo: Aileen Blaney

With that, Kumar took what looked like a clump of earth from an open container – a dried-out sod of human waste that had over a period of time lost all its pathogens to the soil around it. After around three years, the pit is closed off and waste is directed into its twin receptacle.

“Until now, we haven’t patented this,” Kumar said. “We are not doing any business here.” Walking between pits, along with a young Californian who had dropped in on the tour, he pointed out the different materials used for the cylindrical lining. “The rings can be terracotta, concrete or whatever is available.” Sulabh uses locally available material to lower financial impediments to construction. Its two-pit pour-flush toilet has been adopted by agencies such as the WHO, UNICEF, UNEP and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. The Government of India has also included the twin-pit design for toilets built as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

However, as The Wire has reported, “many households have built larger, single pit toilets, containment chambers or septic tanks, often even ignoring the recommended distance from water sources or the water table.” Unlike the Sulabh twin pit toilet, these are water-guzzlers, and “the unavailability of effective systems for emptying them – particularly in rural settings – could lead to the inadvertent promotion of the illegal and inhuman practice of manual scavenging.”

But Kumar is optimistic: “India is 90% or 100% free of open defecation” – although this is contestable for different reasons. “When the ‘Clean India’ mission started in 2014, toilet coverage was only 49%.” Quoting construction numbers can conceal lagging percentages in behavioural change but the “38 toilets built per minute” does indicate change in the sanitation sector.  Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, has been more cautious: “The country did successfully build 100 million toilets, but this success must be made sustainable,” she wrote in September 2019.

Manoj Kumar holds up a lump of manure derived from human faeces. Photo: Aileen Blaney

While Kumar and I were talking, a group of dairy farmers had gathered around the courtyard for advice from one of the organisation’s senior scientists on converting cow dung into energy on their farms in the National Capital Region. Sulabh operates a biogas plant on campus that performs the same function, supplying the power to its kitchens. At other locations, the organisation has helped build mechanisms to convert effluents from biogas production into “colourless, odourless and pathogen-free water which can be used safely for aquaculture, agriculture purposes or for discharge into any water body.”

After five decades, Sulabh has a presence in 1,749 towns in 492 districts. B.N. Srivastava, the organisation’s honorary chairman, also said they’ve built or converted 1.5 million toilets in households around the country, has been maintaining “9,366 public toilet complexes in 1,918 local bodies,” 200 of which are linked to biogas units. Most of these are public toilets; Sulabh however prefers domestic setups. Srivastava added that the organisation has also “constructed 20,000 toilet blocks … covering 6,241 schools all over the country.”

As the noted astrophysicist Jayant Naralikar once said, “It is easier to maintain a nuclear reactor in India than a public toilet.”

Aileen Blaney is a faculty member at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and a co-editor of the book Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice.