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Updated: October 11, 2010 18:42 IST

A hallmark of civilisation

R. V. Smith
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Illustration: Tony smith
The Hindu Illustration: Tony smith

The toilet system down the ages

One often wonders as to the type of toilet system in the medieval days in Delhi, when there were no commodes or flush bathrooms. A MetroPlus reader's query led to some research. During Christ's days people eased themselves in trenches outside. But there was either a tank in the house or a basket to contain the refuse. In India, going to the jungle, an euphemism for open-air defecation was common even then.

In England people unabashedly threw their refuse , wrapped in rags, on the streets but in royal palaces and homes of the nobility baskets or other containers were in use before the commode came into existence. The Elizabethan house tank was dumped with perfume. King James I was killed while he was in the toilet and defenceless . So also a Moghul prince and the Chambal dacoit Kalla. Centuries before Christ, King David had spared the life of King Saul while he was easing himself. In the 1950s, a nervous cop failed to shoot the woman outlaw Putli when she was spotted in a similar situation in a cave. Incidentally, Greek youth tried to resist the urge as they thought it would weaken them, according to a finding by Dr Bindeswar Pathak.

The British brought the commode to Delhi which was known as the thunder box. However the ancient Hindus (ever mindful of cleanliness) had their scavengers as did the Sultans of then Delhi. “The sandas” came into existence as a better means of waste disposal. The grand Moghuls, like everything else they did, built a lavish toilet system in Delhi and Agra.

According to historian Dr R. Nath, “Each annexe was provided with a toilet system of its own, toilets were also provided on one side of the complex as a whole. They were either in the form of hammams (combined latrine and bathroom) or in a series of latrines at the edge of the complex, adequately secured by high walls, the remains of which have survived in the harem quarters of the Agra Fort but not in the Red Fort and Purana Quila. After use, the latrines were cleaned via scavenging. An underground tunnel, nearly six feet deep was provided below the latrines for use (clearance) by female scavengers. The entire latrine cell was built of thick masonry, the main hole being made in a 6 to 8-inch-thick stone for security.

Something cruder was in use in Delhi during the Sultanate period, despite Mohammed bin Tughlaq's barber's and sweeper's supposed affluence. The system was based on the “khuddi” pattern (squatting over one and a half-foot-rests on either side) which was followed in the houses of the urban folk. The sandas was a narrow well-like structure through which the waste went several feet below in a small cabin type enclosure cleansed by the sweeper without having to enter the house. In other Delhi houses the scavenger was allowed at a fixed time twice a day and was known as the “baharwallah” as distinguished from the “andarwallahs” or inhabitants of the house.

It was during Muslim rule that Sheikh Mehtars were known to have emerged in the Capital, they were scavengers who had been converted and became a caste of their own. They were allowed to offer prayers alongside others in mosques as they generally bathed and cleansed themselves in other ways too before changing their working-day attire and put on clean clothes. The other scavengers came to be known by the now derogatory term “bhangis” as they were supposed to be under the influence of bhang and not given to cleaning themselves much. But that was how society thought then.

We have arrived a long way from those times though night soil is unfortunately still carried by sweepers on their heads in some places in Delhi where the wheel-barrow or flush system is yet to be introduced. The permanent Sulabh toilet exhibition in Mahavir Nagar can be an eye-opener for many. It's not a very pleasant story but when one eats one has to discard the waste also. How well it is cleared is the hallmark of civilisation.

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