Let us rewind to the the times of advanced hunter-gatherers in whose home bases there prevailed entirely different ideas of cleanliness. To begin with, there were no pottying amenities within their homes, as there were in those of later Harappan city dwellers. Presumably their ablutions were all al fresco performances. Nor did they regard their dead as polluting – they literally kept them close to hearth and home.

The mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the Gangetic plains in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, dug graves below their own homes and buried clan members right there.

Integrating mortuary and domestic spaces in this general style included providing for the departed by placing food and offerings within the graves: animal meat, antler ornaments, stone and bone tools, as also pieces of red ochre. The desire to believe that the dead are never fully gone, and may continue to provide for some of the needs of the living beyond the grave, is an old one and is to be found in the funerary and burial practices of every ancient civilisation from the Egyptian to the Sumerian to the Scandinavian and the Asian. Bodies were buried in areas conspicuously close to cooking hearths. Hunter-gatherers may have believed that the hearths would continue to provide much-needed warmth and succour to the departed.

Among communities outside Harappan cities and villages, the custom of living in spaces above their dead continued. A couple of hundred skeletons found at the agricultural settlement of Inamgaon in Maharashtra, of people who lived there between 1600 BCE and 700 BCE, were interred within the habitation area. Oddly, though, most of the adult skeletons have their lower extremities chopped off below the ankle. Perhaps those living above didn’t relish the possibility of those below deciding to take a walk. This is not as frivolous an observation as it may seem, for the fear of the dead rising and becoming mobile ghosts was very real. The Harappan belief in the need to sequester the dead from the living, may have been motivated by this same fear of the walking dead, as perhaps of the notion of a proximate corpse being defiling, even if safely buried.

Beyond the archaeology of ancient India’s changing ideas of hygiene, there was a labyrinthine litany of dos and don’ts in ancient Sanskrit law books and digests.

Known as Dharmashastras, these encompassed a vast body of religious and civil law, as also ideas about the right course of conduct in various situations from birth to death. Both birth and death were thought to be the source of impurity for family and relatives, and the days it took to become free of the impurity depended on many circumstances. Elaborate differences were constructed between impurity at birth and that at death; so also, the duration for getting rid of impurity (ashauch) depended upon whether the deceased was an infant or a male or a female; and on the caste of the deceased. Several texts laid down varying periods – ten days, twelve days, fifteen days, a month – for impurity among Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras, respectively. The lower down you were on the caste ladder, the longer it took to shake off your state of uncleanliness. And for as long as a corpse was not removed from a village, the whole village was in a state of impurity – during its proximity there could be no eating, no Vedic study, and no ritual sacrifice.

The Chandalas (untouchables) were those who dealt with corpses, dirt, and dead materials. They were expected to live outside the village, their touch and sight being considered polluting. Purity rules were as much about isolating defiling substances as about segregating and cast(e)ing out segments of people who could be forced, supposedly upon instructions from Heaven delivered by Brahmans, into grossly underpaid menial labour.

Some substances were considered horribly polluting while others were seen as less bad.

Nayanjot Lahiri
Nayanjot Lahiri

Excreta, urine, semen, blood, marrow, liquor, and intoxicants were dreadfully polluting; dogs, village swine (the pigs, not the men), cats and cat pee, ear wax, nails, phlegm, discharge from the eyes, and perspiration were thought polluting but not disastrously so. Pollution could be washed off, but how quickly and permanently depended on your caste status. A daily bath was stipulated as universally necessary, while two or three baths a day were recommended for hermits: the spiritually elevated were naturally expected to be cleaner. Our Dharmashastra compilers would have been shocked at the later practice among ancient Christians of alousia, denoting the physical state of being unwashed. These were the ascetics who believed that after the spiritual cleansing of baptism, washing one’s hair and flesh had been rendered superficial or irrelevant and deserved only to be spurned. Hindu perspectives had more in common with the religious codes of ablution laid down later by Islam, which had rules for minor ablutions (wudu) that were to be performed five times a day, and others for major ablutions (ghusl) which required that water be used to wash the entire body.

These law codes, luckily, were never set in stone. In fact, like Chaucer’s Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales, they show a relaxed pragmatism in offering exceptions to rules of impurity. The things that were never impure included articles exposed for sale in a market such as rice and barley (though touched by many interested buyers otherwise considered impure); alms collected when walking from house to house on the road; the mouth of a woman at times of “dalliance”; and the meat of animals seized or killed – even if by dogs, untouchables, or raptors.

What this meant in practice is that there was nothing necessarily “untouchable” about those Chandalas who provided meat that the upper castes coveted.

And, moreover, items or bodies befouled through contact with “untouchables” could be purified by washing and rubbing with water, clay, and one specific kind of turd that was deemed cleansing, namely cow dung, which, along with cow piss, was thought by upper-caste Hindus to have purificatory powers (an idea given political weight by the Indian prime minister Morarji Desai, who in the 1970s was renowned for advocating urine therapy, in his case with human urine).

Human excrement, on the other hand, does not seem to have been thought to have purificatory properties, no upper-caste Hindu in ancient times recommended eating your own turds for breakfast. On the contrary, people were told about how “calls of nature” were to be answered far from human habitation. This was decidedly different advice from that which Harappan city planners will have offered, since the most important of civic amenities there made it possible for people to do just the opposite. All bowel activity aided by gravity was recommended to be carried out on ground covered with dry twigs or leaves or grass or loose earth. Cleaning up with water and lumps of earth was also prescribed. Every history of personal hygiene tells us that the world’s toileting millions divide into “washers” and “wipers”. Most ancient people were wipers, but Indians were always washers. And the obsession of their texts with bodily cleanliness is so detailed in its particularities that the hygiene schizophrenia for which India is globally reputed is laid bare: an obsessive interest in selfish personal care and a general indifference to littering and fouling up the environment.

Excerpted with permission from Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour Of Ancient India, Nayanjot Lahiri, Hachette India.