Look who’s clean: Hygiene, India and the West

In the 19th century, when Britain was busy ‘civilising’ India, London’s air was actually insufferably foul due to excreta being flung out of windows and straight onto the streets

Published: 04th February 2021 07:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th February 2021 07:05 AM   |  A+A-

tapas ranjan

What the British found quite disgusting during their long uninvited stay in India was that Indians defecated in open fields, squatting. The Western world picked up and echoed this narrative and these toilet practices were painted as decisively inferior. A massive Swachh Bharat mission has now been launched on a war footing and by this year its target is to make India free of this archaic custom of open defecation—which has to go, as it is anachronistic.

To appreciate our old toilet customs, we may dabble a bit with history and geography. What lay at their root was the Indian obsession with avoiding ‘pollution’ and ‘impurities’; the worst were (and are) faeces of humans, including one’s own. Therefore, the farther away from home one disposed of human excreta, the better it was. This meant defecating in the open, which was considered a very desirable cultural habit. Using water to clean oneself thereafter was/is non-negotiable and several classes insisted on a complete bath after the unclean act was over and also changing into fresh clothes.

Till a few decades ago, relatives from villages would be horrified to see how toilets were not far but attached to urban homes, where everyone used the same ‘spot’. So pronounced was the revulsion of rural guests that they would often insist on venturing out for toilet.  As M N Srinivas has stated, purity and pollution are among the very principles on which Hinduism rests. In fact, Sanskritisation insists, among other essentials, on the strict observance of standards of bodily and social hygiene. Any culture that did not use water so passionately and did not practice such all encompassing ritual purity was branded as barbarian or mleccha. Contact with them was quite unpardonable.

Most Western civilisations had, however, no such fixation with touch/cleanliness or water/washing—even when they had access to clean water. Their forbidding cold was not the only determinant and Europeans (along with their white colonial cousins) had completely different attitudes to cleanliness and water per se. Bathing was rare and inner garments were often stitched on to bodies for months. This explains why flowers, perfumes and aromatics were always in great demand. Human excreta was never liked anywhere, but it did not meet with the same loathing as in India.

Though some classes occasionally used improvised soapy materials, regular washing of hands was considered unnecessary there. Thus, when surgeon and obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis suggested in 1847 that doctors in Vienna wash their hands before and after operations and deliveries, he was considered a crank. He lost his job, had a mental breakdown and died in an asylum at just 47. Even a century after the British made public their detestation of Indian toilet habits, late Victorian-age British were merrily throwing out buckets of faeces and urine collected in their homes straight out of their windows.

These were often flung out from upper floors, without warning, and could fall on hapless passers-by. Walking over this muck was completely unavoidable. Numerous records attest that in the 19th century, when Britain was busy ‘civilising’ India, London’s air was actually insufferably foul and just outrageously smelly. The Thames river belched of human waste all the time. So unbearable was it that in 1858—the very year when the Crown took India over from the East India Company—a national emergency called the ‘Great Stink’ was declared. Sewerage pipes had finally to be laid as this was unavoidable and it took several years to complete installing 13,000 miles of pipes under and from London.

Incidentally, both germs and bacteria were virtually unknown, until Louis Pasteur could prove that germs really existed and caused disease. The advanced West believed till the mid-19th century that ‘miasma’ or vapours brought disease. But it took three decades thereafter for Ferdinand Cohn and Robert Koch to discover bacteria and its treatment. Viruses were discovered another decade later. How, then, was it that ancient Indians linked human excreta with disease? In their erudite research article published in June 2018 in a Royal Society journal, entitled The structure and function of pathogen disgust, Val Curtis and Mícheál de Barra explained that instant revulsion at pathogens was a genetic safeguard. They also stated that “human excreta are both a major source of pathogenic viruses, bacteria and helminths and an important elicitor of disgust”.

In India, this was embedded in its cultural software and hygiene was hammered in by religion—like the repeated insistence in Puranas such as the Vayu, Skanda and Garuda. They prescribed diets and insisted on total hygiene to combat jwara or fevers and disease. The Garuda Purana, for instance, is clear that illness is caused by santapa atmapacharaja or unhygienic habits, which included toilet ones. But the Puranas offered no empirical explanations and are not scientific.

Though the West had insisted on its seat-toilet, its flushable version is, in fact, a recent invention. But now, after it has destroyed the healthy Indian habit of the squatting toilet by touting that its commode is more civilised, it is discovering otherwise. It is slowly realising the virtues of the squatting mode, both for better bowel movements and healthier knees. Let us hope that India’s uncompromising insistence on using water hits them where it matters soon and is adopted.

Jawhar Sircar  (Tweets @jawharsircar)   
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati



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