Friday 26 October 2018

Smallest Room: The Toilet Museum of Delhi, India

This article from my visit to Delhi, India appeared in The Sunday Age newspaper in 2012, but never went online: so here it is for your amusement. I was hosted on that trip by Thai Airways.

The suburbs of Delhi, India seem like a strange place to find the throne of King Louis XIII of France. Though it’s not a throne in the strict legal sense.

It’s actually a replica of a grand combination of chair and toilet, which the monarch had constructed for him in the 17th century.

Ever a busy man, the monarch used it to attend to his courtiers and, er, other royal business at the same time.

So I’ve learnt something new about the excesses of the French aristocracy today, and in an unlikely setting - the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, located in a less salubrious sector of the Indian capital.

As my taxi driver Sharwan wove his taxi down ever more crowded roads, past increasingly more dilapidated dwellings, I started to wonder whether visiting this institution was such a good idea.

However, the Sulabh Museum turns out to be a refreshing pit stop between visits to the tombs and monuments of India’s capital.

Not only does it display an array of toilets from across the ages, it’s also a showcase for the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation’s worthy work providing low-cost, environmentally friendly latrines to communities across the subcontinent.

I’ve entered the Sulabh complex in the company of Sharwan, who had never heard of the museum before, and wants to check it out as well.

Inside the walls, we find a neatly maintained collection of low buildings around a central courtyard. To one side is the museum, with a sign bearing “Thoughts that matter”, including “Sanitation is our religion”.

A worthy notion, but is the museum interesting? Well, yes. Its contents are a mix of informative fact and colourful exhibits, including replicas of highly decorated historic ceramic loos from the houses of European gentry.

Among the collection, there’s a timeline of the great toilet developments of history, a model of a two-storey outhouse from the USA, a portable loo for noblemen’s hunting trips, a leather armchair convenience and a model of a Korean house in the shape of a toilet.

There’s also a complex Japanese model with a bank of control buttons controlling heating and other high-tech features. The organisation has even built an award-winning toilet complex at the Taj Mahal, I discover.

It’s all very amusing, even illuminating, but there’s a more serious side to the museum. Its curator, Bageshwar Jha, tells me that one of the Sulabh organisation’s founding aims was to free dalits - India’s “untouchable” caste - from their traditional latrine cleaning tasks.

Outside in the courtyard, there’s a statue of a dalit woman bearing a waste can upon her head. It’s near a series of demonstration models of the loos that Sulabh sells to villages, underlining its serious health and environmental work.

The non-profit organisation even makes a virtue of necessity, helping to operate its compound by using bio-gas and fertiliser harvested from its bank of public toilets along the main street.

It’s an intriguing institution, with an unconventional collection which has... shall we say... universal interest. But is its focus too indelicate for many tourists?

“A toilet museum is not everybody’s cup of tea,” admits Mr Jha, but then mentions visitors’ reliably amused reactions to Louis XIII’s special throne. “It provokes people’s laughter, and anything that makes you laugh is valuable.”

The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets is located at Sulabh Bhawan, Mahavir Enclave, Palam Dabri Marg, New Delhi, India. Free entry, see its website for opening hours and directions.

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