A Leap Back in Evolution: A Film, Open Defecation, and the Advanced Sewage System of the Indus Valley Civilisation

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The period dates back to almost five thousand years ago. The ancient Indus Valley Civilisation had systems of sewage and drainage that were developed and used in cities throughout the region and these were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East and even more efficient than those in many areas of Pakistan and India today. Tapati shows the sordid decline from the past, in her weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

It was a late night show when we managed two tickets of the latest release – Toilet Ek Premkatha. In keeping with changing times, people now prefer to spend their time going to movies and malls, because none of your friends or rather acquaintances are available on the weekends and during the week there is no time to socialise; the kids are busy with tutorials and homework, project submissions or exam preparations. Thus we are also trapped in the regular habit of watching movies and share our opinions on social sites, the most common platform for interaction of the otherwise busy people.

Now, it was necessary to inform my friends about our achievement of securing two tickets of the highly publicised movie. So the next morning I shared my experience with Toilet Ek Premkatha on the social pages. As I sat sipping my first cup of tea and reading the newspaper, my eyes frequented on the cell to check the comments. This peaceful morning ritual was disturbed with someone ringing the calling bell several times. Some visitor at this hour is usually not expected. I hurriedly opened the door to receive my neighbour, Prof Chandrasekhar (CS), a retired history professor.

After finishing the formal pleasantries, CS comforted in the single sofa and commented, “So you have been to the movie Toilet? It shows people are serious on this issue.”

“Yes, it is a beautiful story and the message has been presented with fun, frolic and peppered with typical filmy style spices.” I agreed, “Open defecation is one of the many evils our people have to deal with.”

“Why? We have opted for this situation!” My learned friend commented, “We have many positive things embedded in history which we have ignored for long as remote past. Let me explain…” He started a speech leaving no scope to intervene.

“The period dates back to almost five thousand years ago. The ancient Indus Valley Civilisation had systems of sewage and drainage that were developed and used in cities throughout the region and these were far more advanced than any found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East and even more efficient than those in many areas of Pakistan and India today.”

“Toilets with water supplies were used in the Indus Valley Civilization, five thousand years ago?” I intervened with a silly question; failing memories with ageing have left me forgetful about many things, I regretted.

“The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro had flush toilet systems in almost every house, attached to a sophisticated sewage system as one of the world’s earliest known system of flush toilets. The toilet holes would be flushed by emptying a jar of water, drawn from the house’s central well, through a clay brick pipe and into a shared brick drain that would feed into an adjacent soak pit or cesspit. The soak pits would be periodically emptied of their solid matter, possibly to be used as fertiliser.

The cities had a sophisticated sewage system with regular manhole covers, public latrines for every block and sewers large enough to walk in. House drains, which were basically enclosed systems, were made of clay pipes and were connected to the sewers by open brick gutters. Most courtyard houses also had washing platforms and a dedicated waste disposal hole along with private wells. Archaeologists have found several brick containers that were strategically located along the street junctions of Mohenjo-Daro specifically for garbage disposal.”

“This is interesting! Such a sophisticated system existed in such a remote past! Unbelievable!” As I exclaimed, CS continued, “One of the other finest examples for flush toilet sewerage is the ruins at Dholavira, located on Khadir Bet, an island in the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. This city has yielded toilets, sullage jars, or sanitary pits. Drains had a good variety of structures including cut-stone ones and pottery pipes.

“In another city at Lothal, another township in Mohenjo Daro all houses had their own private toilet which was connected to a covered sewer network constructed of brickwork held together with a gypsum-based mortar that emptied either into the surrounding water bodies or alternatively into cesspits, the latter of which were regularly emptied and cleaned.

“In fact, we have few old books on urban and house-planning, which indicate the position of various rooms (shala) in a site meant for a residence does indicate a direction and position for ‘Vaahsthal’ that is the latrine. They seem to differentiate latrines from bathing room. One Buddhist text from Sri Lanka also refers to a definite direction and location is specified for the latrine in the Chaityas that is suggestive of scientific disposal of human waste.”

It looked like Prof Chandrasekhar was much prepared to renew my knowledge of history; the movie was an excuse for adding a new student in his registrar. But it was worth revealing the past glories.

“In Mohenjo-Daro, archaeologists discovered highly advanced water management system with 80 public toilets and more than 700 wells. Every house had its own bathroom and wells were strategically located to supply water to every neighbourhood. The discovery of earliest public water tank which is now known as Great Bath shows their skills in architecture.

“Storing rainwater? Today’s headline says that all reservoirs around this city of Hyderabad have reached a dangerously low level and ground water level is also alarming. We don’t know how to face the summer next year.” I was really concerned over the disturbing headlines.

“The Indus valley people had put so much effort to provide personal and public baths for everyone, storm-water runoff channels. There was also a system to store rainwater, a sophisticated water management system with numerous reservoirs. People devised systems for efficient water management. The sizes of human settlements were largely dependent on nearby available water source of the Indus River and seasonal rains.

“So here we have an early evidence of public water supply and sanitation along with underground wastewater systems and even garbage disposal. These facts make their attempts to live a healthy and hygienic life quite obvious along with efforts to optimally use every natural resource.”

The morning session ended as we both agreed that we need to take a fresh look at our past which we conveniently dumped aside citing the time gap. But it has been our past we should boast about, not put our heads down in shame. Watching a Bollywood blockbuster based on this burning social issue made my mind travel through few of our past glories; it also left us dumb with the question: after five thousand years, where do we stand?

With highly developed science and technology, our daily life has become smooth, when we compete with other nations to reach our neighbouring planets, why do our villages and roads stink with filth? This was not so in the past and we can promise a better future! Social media, online shopping, advanced gadgets have certainly helped India surge ahead, garnering a spot amongst the top few countries, but India can truly shine on only with a change in the life of the masses by providing the necessary infrastructure and taking care of its dwindling resources.

©Tapati Sinha

Photos from the Internet

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Tapati Sinha is educated from schooling to Post-Graduation from Visva-Bharati University with a Doctoral degree from Nagpur University in A.I.H.C.A. She loves Indian literature, Indian and world history and continues her personal research. She picks her subjects from various spheres including historical data, daily experiences of life and varied work places. Tapati is passionate to pursue her writings, novel, poetry, short stories on multifarious topics, past and present under the pen name Anjali.