India’s Louvre of Loos, its Tate of Toilets

You’ve heard of art and craft museums, textile museums, waxworks museums (Madame Tussaud’s), even those showcasing shoes (Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto). But India has its spectacular Sulabh International Museum of Toilets – the world’s only museum showcasing a repertoire of lavatory exhibits from 56 countries. It has been attracting amused visitors ever since it threw open its doors to the public in New Delhi in 1992.

A replica of Louis XIII’s opulent throne commode, gold and silver toilet seats used by Roman emperors, snapshots of Jennifer Lopez’s diamond-encrusted loo, a French toilet designed like a bookcase with names of literary classics engraved on it, ornately carved and meticulously painted European urinals, a treasure chest-shaped mobile commode used by the English while camping….and many more such gasp-inducing exhibits can all be checked out at the toilet museum.

King Louis XIII and Louis the XIV, the museum’s trivia informs us, gave audience while, ahem, using the toilet. The former actually had a commode fitted under his throne, which prompted his court jester to remark that “while the king preferred to eat in privacy, he chose to ease himself public!” The replica of this famed Louis XIII throne is now on display at the Museum.

Thronged by heads of states, academicians and tourists, the toilet museum sprawls over many acres on the fringes of New Delhi. Divided into different segments, its records section contains a trove of facts, pictures and objects relating to the historic evolution of toilets from 2,500 BC to modern times. A chronology of global developments relating to toilet technology, toilet-related social customs across the world, amusing toilet etiquettes, the sanitary conditions and toilet-related legislative efforts of various governments can all be found here.

An exhaustive display of antiquated privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 AD to contemporary times can also be checked out in the museum’s exhibits section. The place also houses a unique collection of poems related to toilet customs penned by authors across the world.

“I traveled extensively across the world to procure information for this unique museum,” explains Bindeshwar Pathak, a UNESCO consultant and the founder of the Toilet Museum, who also operates sanitation-related NGOs in India. “The museum has truly been a labor of love for me. My research team contacted over 100 embassies and high commissions across the world to collect information, photographs and interesting trivia on this subject over several years.”

Extensive research by Pathak’s team for about a year – across a swathe of continents – was followed by more than three years to actually set up the museum. The transportation of materials, photographs, books and exhibits from across the world, Pathak says, was a gargantuan exercise involving many governments, a large research team and talented artists who crafted replicas of toilet seats, commodes and urinals. “The assignment didn’t just require labor and research but also tremendous diplomatic efforts.”

But as Pathak reiterates, the museum’s aim is not just to tickle the visitor’s funny bone but also enrich their knowledge about the historical trends in the development of toilets and their design, materials, and technologies adopted in the past and those in use in the contemporary world.

“The museum also helps policymakers understand the efforts made by our predecessors in this field throughout the world,” Pathak adds. Apart from this, the museum assists manufacturers of toilet equipment and accessories in enhancing their products by functioning as a technology storehouse as also sanitation experts who can learn from the past and solve problems in the sanitation sector.

Apart from unique exhibits, what is also of special interest to visitors are rare, sepia-tinted pictures of an era when man did not have the benefit of water closets. The museum also displays a picture of the famed slush pot devised in 1596 by Sir John Harington, a courtier during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. It illustrates the ancient sewerage system of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley era and maintains a detailed record of how modern toilet systems have evolved over a period of time.

Tracing the history of toilets from the Indus Valley civilization of Lothal in Gujarat, where a highly developed drainage system existed, the museum also documents facts relating to many European countries where early technological developments in the evolution of toilets took place.

The national flags of different counties to which the exhibits belong are displayed alongside. Depress a button -- or operate a mock toilet flush -- and loo and behold, the national anthem of that particular country starts playing.

The museum also illustrates the dramatic evolution of the chamber pot from its humble beginnings. In Victorian times, for instance, the humble pot became a veritable object d'art and through the 1900s appealed to inventors as a vessel that could be elaborated upon and to artists as a canvas on which to work. In 1929, for instance, an American electrician, Elbert Stallworth, patented the first electric chamber pot for use on chilly nights. In a rubber and asbestos seat, which ran round the upper edge, were embedded metal bands enclosing resistance wires between the mica strips.

The cisterns, according to the museum’s information, continued to look modest and plain white till the Austrians introduced cisterns and urinals embellished with floral, dolphin and lion designs in the nineteenth century. The eighteenth century, however, was truly a century of toilets. The invention of a water closet by John Harrington in 1596 which cost only six shillings and eight pence, was truly revolutionary. During this period, however, people also used “earth closets” where earth was used instead of water. A little later, came the development of pan closets - which like cigarette ash tray -- threw the material at the bottom.

During later times, however, the accent in toilet technology has been more on aesthetics to make cisterns and bowls more decorative. It was in 1880 that the toilet curtains made their appearance. The trend was called the age of "belle epoque" in France and Edwardian opulence in England. During 1890, the cantilever type of toilet was invented. Since then the world has not witnessed any significant technical change except a few modifications in the shape of toilet seats and a gradual whittling down in the quantity of water use by the various flush systems.

It was around 1900, the museum tells us, that the concept of a modern “bathroom” came into vogue in Europe. In India, the institution of Gushalkhana (bathroom) was established by the Mughal Kings in 1556. Oppressed by gelatinous Indian summers, the royals constructed luxurious bathing and massage facilities employing marble, gold, silver and semi-precious stones. Some royal bathrooms were even fitted with fancy fountains and decorative jets imported from abroad. The Indian queens especially made a ritual of their baths by imbuing their bathwaters with exotic perfumes, rose petals, milk (echoes of Cleopatra?), sandalwood and aphrodisiacal herbs.