How did the people do their ‘business’ then? (Part 1 of 2)

by | Oct 2, 2022

“What is the most satisfactory and peaceful time in a human’s life?” was the topic of discussion in the courts of King Krishnadevaraya. All of the ministers were giving instances of life and death, while Tenali Raman, a brilliant and witty minister in king’s court was of the opinion that taking a dump at the right time is the most satisfactory and peaceful moment. The entire courtroom burst into laughter. To prove his point, Tenali invited all the ministers as well as the king to a grand party at his house. Having had delicious food, one by one they started to look for a toilet. Tenali had only one toilet, in which he had kept a vessel outside symbolic of the toilet being occupied while there was no one inside. Within a couple of hours, the crowd became restless and soon understood the point Tenali was trying to prove. 


I am sure all of us would have been in similar situations sometime in our life. We might have even resorted to releasing in the open. Privately, every single one of us is concerned on a day-to-day, even hour-to-hour basis about the need to relieve ourselves comfortably. While, not all of us think about the human waste that’s generated and its disposal. A lot of innovations have taken place in terms of external appearance and handling human waste without any contact, we are still struggling in disposing of human waste. The disposal of human waste is a subject normally buried in avoidance – at least in public. 

Over time, there has been a dynamic shift in the significance of toilets and in the underlying attitudes toward purity and pollution, cleanliness and hygiene, and the concept of privacy. Toilets have popped up across centuries and lands, throughout history. Today we as a nation rally behind ‘one toilet per household’ as the ultimate solution for hygiene and sanitation. It would be interesting in the context to look at the development of toilet structures throughout history as cultural differences, beliefs, necessities, and hygiene have shaped the toilet design. This blog will explore the history of toilets and the next blog will explore preferable designs in isolated areas.

The early toilets were seen in Mesopotamia and Indus valley. In the Harappan civilization of 2500 BC, at a place called Lothal (just 62KM from the city of Ahmedabad), the people had water-based toilets in each house which were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. They also had latrines that drained directly into an open street drain.[1] Harappans had an advanced sanitation engineering system. Later when the Aryan tribes settled down, the practice of open defecation was codified into the system emphasizing the importance of personal hygiene and sanitation.

There are elaborate rules in the Manusmriti that talks on which direction to face while defecating and which hand to use for cleaning. It also talks about the distance to be maintained from water sources.[2] At the same time, the contents of sacred scriptures and other literature, also point to the emergence of a particular sub-caste that exclusively does the job of disposing of human waste, and scavenging.[3]

In the post Vedic period, the importance of sanitation and the practice of open defecation kept changing as different dynasties rose and fell. Chanakya’s Arthashastra speaks extensively on policies for maintaining the sanitation of the empire. During the Kushan dynasty, there is mention of residential having attached toilets with a soak pit toilet in a brick ring well which is then joined with a drain and soak pit. India’s ‘Golden Age’ came with the Gupta empire when Buddhism was proliferating. Cleanliness and sanitation were considered a virtue and it has been determined that indoor sanitation was practiced.[3] 

During the Mughal period in India, there is evidence of structures similar to the ‘garderobes’ in the Jaisalmer fort, Rajasthan. The practice of manual scavenging took the shape of a formal hereditary profession by a few low castes who worked similarly to the ‘night men’ in Europe. Though toilets were used by the royals, to keep the toilets clean, manual scavengers who collected the human waste and disposed of it in distant places were prevalent.[2]

In ancient Egypt around 3100 BC, having an indoor toilet showed a wealthy status with the rich using limestone. However, regardless of the class, below the seat was a pit filled with sand.[4] During the Mesopotamian civilisation of 2400 BC, there were six privies in king Akkadd’s palace. Privies were toilets where the user sits over a keyhole-shaped opening and the waste would be drained into a pot under the sitting plate. Outside the palace, the toilets in the kingdom were far more primitive but still present, with key-shaped holes in the ground. The waste was directly collected in a cesspool below the hole, whose size differed according to the room size.[5]

One of the ancient Greek civilisations, located on Crete Island around 2000 BC, had wooden seats and flushing conduits. Around 300 BC, in the Roman empire, both private lavatories and public lavatories for 20 people were common features. They had wooden or stone bench-type seats shaped similarly to a keyhole. There were no partitions between the lavatories. This was because the Romans thought that toilets were a good place to socialise[5]

Public Latrines of Ancient Rome

In Europe, during the 11th-century castle-building boom, chamber pots along with toilets were integrated into the architecture. In the later times, human excretion waste collected in decorated chamber pots was thrown out of the window into the streets. It was easier to throw it out of the window than to build toilets. Rich or poor, the only thing that was different was the material with which chamber pots were made.

Illustration of a woman throwing the human waste from a chamberpot onto the streets!

In the overcrowded and ever-expanding Britain during the 19th century, the number of privies did not match the expansion. In overcrowded cities, such as London and Manchester, up to 100 people shared a single privy. Some privies were connected to cesspools, some to existing street sewers which usually drained into the nearest waterbody from where people got their drinking water from. Sewage, therefore, spilled into the streets and the rivers. This polluted the water sources and tens of thousands died of water-borne disease, especially during the cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1850s. For those privies connected to the cesspool, the ‘night men’ emptied the cesspits after twelve o’clock at night, by their own hand.[6]

When the Britishers colonized India, the state of sanitation in their native was only evolving. In London, in the scorching summer of 1858, temperatures averaged 35 degrees celsius. The stench from the Thames became entirely overwhelming for those nearby, including parliament, whose legislative business was disrupted. Raw sewage would flow into the river Thames turning it into a stinking open sewer, its foreshore thick with human waste, industrial discharge, and slaughterhouse effluent. After this Great Stink of 1858, an engineer, Sir John Bazalgette suggested building a system that would intercept sewers. This system would carry the sewage to large reservoirs and from there be discharged into the Thames.[7]

The first documented flush toilet was invented in 1596 by the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Harington. It was after 300 years that the world finally got a handle on his idea. In the 1800s, the toilets were connected to working sewers and the world has changed forever. Scottish inventor Alexander Cunning created an S bend pipe that allowed the water to sit in the bowl and act as a barrier against the foul smell. It was the English inventor John Braham who attached the hinged flap that sealed the water in the bowl. Both of them hold the patent for the invention of flush toilets. Post these advancements in ‘water closets’ people began to use these extensively. Thomas Crapper, a plumber, sure knew to market these water closets. He was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations during his lifetime, three of them dealt with the flushing water closet.[8]

The improvement in sanitary conditions and the technological innovations in England did not reflect in her colonies. Sanitation was never a priority until a high mortality rate of 69 out of 1,000 troops in the British Army, due to diarrhoea was reported. Commissions for public health were established, followed by sanitation police and sanitary boards. However the colonial interest in public sanitation remained restricted to the military and the elite, and the general public was left on their own. The british used the practice of manual scavenging to their advantage, by supplying them with iron carts to collect the ever-increasing amount of human waste and by introducing licensing of manual scavengers in the Bengal Municipal Act.[9] No colonial policies addressed the needs for sanitation of the general public at large.

But would just ensuring access to toilets mean ensuring safe sanitation? If we wash away the waste and clean ourselves with water, does that mean we have ensured safe sanitation? What about treating the human waste thus accumulated? In areas where tapped water is still an unrealized goal, is it right to impose water-based toilets? Before we dwell on that, what if I told you that wet/water toilets are not the ultimate solution? What if I told you that defecating on the open earth has got its benefits? Stay tuned for the next blog to know more about it.


This is part one of a two-part series to explore the evolution of toilets in the world and other alternative options to wet toilets.

[1] History of Toilets: Exploring History of Sanitation & Hygiene

[2] Swachhata Sanskriti, From the Historic to the Holy: India’s Swachhata Legacy

[3] India’s Toilet Tradition

[4] A Potted History of the Toilet

[5] The Evolution of Toilets and its Current State

[6] A Brief History of the Flush Toilet

[7] The Story of London’s Sewer System

[8] So…Who Invented the Toilet?

[9] India@70: A Brief Colonial History of Sanitation in India

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  1. memohit181

    Very well researched and articulated. Looking forward to the next part Rakshikha

  2. onyxandcherit

    Definitely a Game of ‘Thrones’ when it comes to gets to sit on the toilet seat at parties. Loved the thorough part 1. Eagerly waiting for part 2!


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