How Ancient India Pioneered Sanitation

Millennia before the Roman Empire, the Indus Valley Civilization had private toilets and sophisticated drainage systems. But who gets to decide what is “clean” today?

Lothal - bathroom structure
The bathroom-toilet structure of a house in Lothal, one of the southernmost sites of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (Wikimedia)

Ayesha Le Breton


December 18, 2023


9 min

A popular 16th-century medical advice book, This is the Myrour or Glasse of Helth, advised: “Use not baths or stews, nor sweat too much, for all openeth the pores of a man’s body and maketh the venomous air to enter and for to infect the blood.” Physicians at the time believed washing was dangerous — so dangerous that many people consulted their astrologers to find the most auspicious time to bathe.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I loathed bathing and did so only once a month. France’s King Louis XIV allegedly took only two baths in his entire adult life — both times at the behest of his doctors. (His doctors thought bathing would help cure the king’s headaches. It did not, and he never bathed again.) Yet, millennia before these kings, queens, and Roman public baths, the ancient Indus Valley Civilization featured elaborate sanitary and drainage systems that were the first of their kind. As the West continues to question whether it’s necessary to shower every day, it’s important to reflect on this divergent history and who gets to decide what, or who, is or isn’t clean.

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