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Exploring Toilet History at the Sulabh Museum

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

You may be surprised to learn that there are museums dedicated to the history of toilets and hygienic practices in different parts of the world. There is one such museum in New Delhi, India - The Sulabh Toilet Museum explores the history of toilets and sanitation practices worldwide. It's not just a museum; there's an on-site sanitation educational activity to educate students and the general public. Join FLUSH as we take a little tour of the Sulabh compound.

Entrance to the Sulabh Toilet Museum (Credit: FLUSH)

Sulabh's Origins

The founder of the Sulabh compound was Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. He was a social reformer dedicated to transforming India's cultural mindset toward improved sanitation services and hygiene practices while uplifting Indian communities with sanitary environments. In 1970, he founded Sulabh International Social Service Organization, a non-profit organization providing affordable sanitation facilities to people experiencing poverty and helping abolish the manual collection of feces (you know, with your hands).

  • Sulabh Shauchalaya Complexes, providing public sanitation facilities, including toilets, bathing facilities, and laundry facilities

  • Sulabh Toilet Training Centers, training people to use and maintain toilets

  • Sulabh Mahila Mandal, empowering women and girls through sanitation education and training

Dr. Pathak also invented the Sulabh Shauchalaya, a two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet that is a low-cost and eco-friendly alternative to sewers or septic tank systems, which people experiencing poverty cannot typically access. This compost toilet system has been recommended as an Urban Best Practice by the UN Centre for Human Settlements in the 1990s for about three billion people across the globe, among other UN-related accolades for Sulabh International.

Dr. Pathak faced many challenges while creating the Sulabh Toilet Museum, including the lack of funding and the stigma associated with toilets in India. At the time, even though India's access to basic sanitation services covered less than 15% of the population, funders weren't aware that efforts to increase access to sanitation needed to go beyond simply building toilets. Also, societal norms indicated that toilets were hidden elements only the social outcast labeled "untouchables" had to deal with in unsafe ways.

To overcome these challenges, Dr. Pathak contacted over 100 embassies and High Commissions in New Delhi, requesting information on the subject and providing details/photographs of various toilet designs used in their respective countries. More than 60 Embassies and High Commissions responded to the request and sent valuable information. Dr. Pathak also made it a point to collect information, bit by bit, from anyone and any institution that possessed the material envisaged for setting up the museum. In 1992, after three years of effort, the museum finally opened its doors to the public, offering insight into the historical significance of toilets and their cultural significance over time.

Dr. Pathak's work has impacted the lives of millions of people in India. His dedication to sanitation and hygiene has decreased infectious disease spread. He also raised awareness, changing the cultural mindset around sanitation and hygiene practices. Dr. Pathak received numerous accolades, including the 1991 Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in India; the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize; and the 2013 Legend of the Planet from the French Senate.

The Toilet Museum

Among Sulabh's notable endeavors is the Sulabh International Toilet Museum, located in the Delhi compound with the school initiatives. Initially planned to showcase India's sanitation history, the museum's collection grew to encompass the evolution of toilets worldwide from different cultures and eras. According to TIME Magazine, the museum houses a collection of 4,000 toilet artifacts – physical objects and images – from throughout history, earning the museum a well-deserved spot among the top ten weirdest museums in the world. The museum also features a library and research center for students and researchers interested in the history of toilets and sanitation.

A view inside the museum (Credit: FLUSH)

The museum provides a chronological account of technological advancements in sanitation, social customs, toilet etiquettes, historical legislative efforts, and how people lived and coped with (and without) sanitation over the millennia. The collection has three sections - ancient, medieval, and modern history. Some of the toilets in the ancient section are still functional, so visitors can still sit and flush them!

The museum has images and physical objects showcasing the history of toilets from India and beyond. The ancient and medieval sections contain images and information, with limited physical artifacts. However, the modern section has ample physical objects to showcase the evolution of toilets in the modern era.

A display of various toilets from the museum, and a physical artefact of an old toilet (Credit: FLUSH)

The ancient section explores civilizations from over 2,000 years ago – such as Babylon, Greece, and Rome. It features images of the two oldest known toilets: a clay toilet from the Indus Valley Civilization and a stone toilet intricately decorated with hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt. These toilets showcase the diversity of designs and intricate craftsmanship throughout ancient history.

The medieval section reviews the history of sanitation in India and Europe during the Middle Ages. The collection includes toilets from castles, and monasteries - one of the impressive pieces in the medieval section is an image of the garderobe, an overhanging closet in medieval castles with a hole for dropping excrement. Another highlight is a chamber pot, a portable bowl used as a toilet in homes; chamber points have been around since Ancient Greece, but their popularity blossomed during the European Crusades and continues in many countries. Chamber pots were often made of ceramic or metal and often decorated with images of animals or flowers.

In addition to garderobes and chamber pots, the medieval section also includes a variety of other sanitation-related objects, such dung buckets from Asia used to make composted fertilizer).

An old Chinese dung bucket in the museum (Credit: FLUSH)

The modern section of the museum showcases the remarkable advancement in sanitation technology since the 20th century. The collection includes modern and innovative toilet designs. One toilet design is Japanese with a built-in bidet (a hose installed in the toilet to wash you) and a heated seat. This design demonstrates how technology can make toilets more comfortable and hygienic. Another highlight is a modern composting toilet, which uses bacteria to break down poo into composted fertilizer with microbes, carbon, and oxygen. The collection also presents solar-powered toilets that incinerate poo into ash for easy handling.

From left to right: An incinerator toilet, an airplane toilet, various toilet art objects

(Credit: FLUSH)

Aside from its historical exhibits, the museum also features a collection of toilet-themed art. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and even poems about toilets. The art in the section from across the world is both humorous and thought-provoking, and it challenges us to think about toilets in a new way.

The museum also recognizes Indian-grown artists that focus on the sanitary story of the country. For example, the museum nods to one painting by Raghu Rai that depicts the lives of people who use public toilets in India. The painting reminds us of the challenges people face when they cannot access safe and clean toilets. Another highlight is a sculpture by Subodh Gupta depicting a toilet made of gold and silver. The sculpture is a humorous and thought-provoking commentary on the wealth and poverty in India.

Toilet Etiquettes for married couple in India (Credit: Sulabh Toilet Museum)

Can't make it to India? That's okay - the Sulabh International Museum also offers a virtual tour for those unable to visit in person. The virtual tour explores the different sections of the museum. You can also learn about the history of sanitation and the museum's creation through an e-book on the museum's website.

Sulabh's Public School

Within the same compound as the museum stands the Sulabh Public School. The school provides education and opportunities to children from marginalized communities in Delhi. Dr. Pathak believed the school and museum are complementary, hence them being in the same compound. Regardless of caste, religion, or economic status, the school empowers students to break the cycle of poverty, fostering academic success and enabling graduates to pursue higher education and successful careers.

The school offers a holistic education that includes academic subjects - English, Science, and Mathematics – and life skills and vocational training. The school also provides its students with healthcare, nutrition, and other support services. Basically, the museum teaches people about the importance of sanitation, while the school teaches children the skills they need to live healthy and productive lives. Some students at the school also help maintain a public sanitation facility in front of the compound with a biogas system to harvest methane from composting poo, providing energy for the compound.

The school has a Sulabh School Sanitation Club (SSSC), which empowers children to be agents of change through education and sanitation action. Children learn about sanitation, hygiene, and the importance of safe and clean toilets. They also are encouraged to take action to improve sanitation in schools and communities beyond the compound. The SSSC has now run in over 10,000 schools in India, reaching over 1 million children.

The display of toilet types at Sulabh (Credit: FLUSH)

The compound also has a display educational area of different types of simple, cost-effective toilet systems that its students and participants in India can easily implement and manage. It includes toilets with different numbers of latrine pits that can be filled up interchangeably and pits with different kinds of materials. Visitors can post in a pit or on a toilet pan if they'd like!

The Sulabh Compound is a testament to Dr. Pathak's tireless efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene in India. From its humble origins to its extensive collection spanning ancient, medieval, and modern sections, the museum sheds light on the historical importance of the often-overlooked world of sanitation and mundane toilet.

This blog was updated August 18, 2023, after learning of Dr. Pathak's passing.


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