April 2004




April  2004 


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Anurag Yadav

A museum dedicated to toilets  down the ages is flush with little known facts….Built by Sulabh International, the museum is the brainchild of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a D.Litt. from Patna who has developed economical, easy-to-build and simple-to-maintain Sulabh toilets.

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Ornately carved urinals, commodes and bidets 

The toilet (or the commode !!!), over the ages, has reflected cultural mores, social prejudices and  the development of society. A museum near Delhi traces the history of the WC as it evolved over the centuries. Built by Sulabh International, the museum is the brainchild of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a D.Litt. from Patna who has developed economical, easy-to-build and simple-to-maintain Sulabh toilets.

The museum, according to its 'curator' Suresh Prasad, is an effort to raise awareness of clean and hygienic ways of human waste disposal. "We want each and every individual to understand the health, economic and social angle to developing clean toilet facilities."

A team of American researchers who visited the toilet museum recently was astonished at the unusual project. Built on a 3-acre plot on the Palam-Dabri village road near Delhi, it has a hall lined with pictures of ancient toilets that have become antique pieces today.

One such toilet is the throne of King Louis XlV. In fact, the contraption worked both as a throne and a toilet pot which the emperor used for his official duties and personal needs at the same time!

Another such interesting item is a 'treasure chest' shaped mobile toilet which the British took with them during hunting expeditions. Then there are pots in the shape of a globe, a book and also a double storey toilet.

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L-R:King Louis XlV's throne-toilet;  a globe shaped toilet belonging to an early 20th. Century Belgian royal; a book shaped toilet…

The museum has a rare collection of facts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. It gives a chronology of developments relating to technology, toilet related social customs, toilet etiquette as also the sanitary conditions and legislative efforts of the times. It has an extensive display of privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 a.d. to modern times.

The pictures and objects displayed at the Museum make one aware of how the world looked when societies did not have the benefit of the water closet (WC) and the change that was brought by its invention.

Colourful History

Ornately carved and painted urinals and commodes attract attention and are a source of amusement to many. There is a pictorial display of how the Roman emperors had toilet pots made of gold and silver.

The museum has a rare record of the flush pot devised in 1596 by John Harrington, a courtier in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. There are also on display the highly evolved sewerage systems of the Mohenjodaro and Harrappan civilization and a detailed record of how modern toilet pans have emerged over a period of time.

Tracing the history of toilets down the ages, the museum documents early technological developments in the evolution of toilets in Europe. The national flags of different countries from where the pictures of toilets have been collected are displayed in front of the toilets.

While wisecracks abound, significance of the humble and much neglected pot can never be underscored. The attempt to provide toilet facilities has a long history, possibly older than the Roman Empire. Mohenjodaro excavations yield proof of sophisticated common baths as well as private toilets in households. Like in many other developments, after leading in sanitation facilities, the Indians fell way behind the developed world.

In ancient times, public baths reached the highest point of development. Under the Romans, in the second century BC they became meeting places for people. Later in middle ages, baths vanished accept for some places in Spain. However, it was only after an outbreak of cholera in London in 1832 that the British authorities began a campaign for building public baths and 'wash houses'. In India, after 1940, public toilets were constructed sparsely in different towns but a majority of them have become unusable due to lack of good maintenance.

But it is not these ordinary lavatories and urinals that grab your attention. The cynosures of the eyes are exquisite commodes. There is the picture of a medieval mobile commode in the shape of a treasure chest, which the English used while camping out for a hunt in India. You could imagine the surprise of some unsuspecting highway robbers if they made away with such "treasure chest" thinking it to contain money and valuables!

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak says that he faced innumerable hurdles while setting up the museum. " When I would tell people about the project they laughed at me and thought I was playing some kind of a practical joke." Yet, undeterred he requested embassies and foreign institutions to help him get data about the history of loos. The US and UK embassies were the most forthcoming.

Full of interesting sidelights the museum brings to focus this very important subject, which despite its humorous connotations, remains the most important calling in any person's life. If you are still not convinced, ask anyone who's had the pressing need to respond to natures' call when there is no toilet around!




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