Thinking About Toilets, and then Thinking Beyond Toilets

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The view from 5000 meters. Ladakh’s environment is rocky, mountainous, and harsh. This hasn’t stopped Ladakhis from thriving.

Ladakhis traditionally have some of the most ecologically attuned attitudes of any people I’ve ever encountered. I say “traditionally” because older values and lifeways are disappearing here. The mere fact that there are very few young people in Leh this time of year is an indication that the old ways hold little appeal to young people. In what follows, I do not mean to essentialize or romanticize the past, but my present thoughts are on what was more than what is. And at present, I find myself contemplating toilets. Bear with me.

Prior to the mainstream development of the 1960’s, Ladakhis had been “living green” for centuries. Historically speaking, they had to live in tune with their environment – there was no alternative. The trans-Himalayan region is just too harsh, too uncompromising, to be abused without consequence. The margin between living and dying, let alone between thriving and merely subsisting, was thin.

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As with many settlements in Ladakh, the village of Thiksey is situated along the floodplain of the Indus River – some of the only flat, fertile ground around. Cultural elements meld pleasantly with the landscape.

The natural limitations here in Ladakh are dramatic. There is considerably less oxygen here than at sea level, the sun is incredibly intense, and the weather is unpredictable. Each year has four months of (relatively) cool summer[1], six months of amazingly cold winter, and about a month between each season where the weather does what it pleases. And Ladakh is a desert. Any clouds that try to press over the Himalayas from the plains must first dump their load of moisture on the far side, where it drains down to the subcontinent, leaving Ladakh in a rain-shadow. Annual precipitation here is measured in millimetres, and usually only a handful of them. Locals tell me that it didn’t rain at all this past summer.

[Allow me a quick anecdote to illustrate just how cold and dry it is here. I was recently out on walk and a pigeon decided to relieve itself a few meters above me. This might normally cause some hassle and prompt some amount of clean-up, but not this time. The missile merely bounced off my coat, frozen solid before it even struck me. I took this as a good omen.]

But back to the limitations of Ladakh: as the ever-reliable Janet Rizvi wrote,

“…This desert is unlikely ever to blossom like the rose. …This landscape can be modified; it can never be transformed.”

-Janet Rizvi, “Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia,” 2nd ed., Oxford University Press: New Delhi. 1996.

Incomplete as it necessarily is, the Ladakhi style of modification is remarkably perfect. It is hard to describe, but I will try: the mountains do not seem to care that people are trying to live here. The entire landscape is rough and often brutal, and the textures, colours, and hardness of it all make life seem superfluous. It is altogether an alien place. It is hard to believe that people have settled here…until you come across a Ladakhi village. Inconspicuously situated along one of the alluvial fans that, with careful tending over generations, will eventually form fertile soil, Ladakhi villages seem to grow out of the stone at their feet. The whitewashed houses and chortens, the mud-brick animal enclosures, and the natural stone walls – it all softens the otherwise inhospitable atmosphere. The fields that are farmed with such care are terraced to gain some flatness in a place that has almost none. Each terrace will remind you of a line in a fingerprint, and an entire village of them strikes a bit of curvy order onto the stark background. Without quite being able to place your finger on why, you are left with the feeling that yes, people belong here. Humanity in Ladakh is as natural as the mountains themselves.

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The village of Thiksey, with its famous monastery at the summit, grows out of a rocky hilltop. The architectural composition lends comfort to the otherwise inhospitable environment.

Traditional Ladakhi culture(s) sought, seemingly above all else, harmony. Ladakhis have responded to their environmental limitations by valuing thrift, recycling everything, and regulating their own populations to live within the area’s carrying capacities. Thus, almost nothing was produced that was not strictly needed,[2] literally nothing was wasted, and every person had a place in the systems of production, religion, and craft that kept the whole society afloat and happy. Most things in traditional Ladakhi life came from the local land or animals, were fashioned and worked by local hands, and eventually returned to the soil when all possible uses had been extracted from them.

With so little water, so little time to grow food each year, and so little accumulated organic matter in which to grow it, historical peoples simply had to take the utmost care in securing their most basic physical existence. All of this translated to a way of life of which modern ecology would approve, right down to the way that Ladakhis traditionally (and still do to a lessened extent) used their own wastes to fertilize their fields. Which brings me to toilets: Ladakhi toilets have a well-deserved reputation for excellence. They are, indeed, exemplars of the good environmental attitudes I’ve been discussing. Picture a two-story outhouse and you’ll have a good idea of the architecture. Wastes are deposited from the upper story through a hole in the floor, and collect at ground-level on the first floor. A shovel-full of dirt covers each deposit, and a few times a year ashes from the kitchen stove are also mixed in, which adjusts the pH for optimal decomposition. In the springtime, the compost is spread on the fields, returning the absolutely-essential carbon and nitrogen to the soil. The whole process is relatively dry, as no additional water is ever mixed into the compost. Like I said, nothing was wasted.

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I recently heard a local conservation advocate exclaim that people come to Ladakh to see its toilets. I do not believe he was correct, but I believe he was attempting to illustrate the idea that there is something remarkably intuitive about recycling human wastes this way. People seem to get it, especially when they make comparisons to the unhygienic varieties so common elsewhere. While the city of Leh seems to be mimicking the sprawling, unplanned style of development that characterizes so much of the Global South, complete with many Western-style flush toilets, many of the villages throughout Ladakh still sing a different tune. In witnessing glimpses of the traditional ways, one can still get a sense of the wholeness and wisdom that made life in this place possible before politics, fossil fuels, and mainstream development threw its doors open to the rest of the world.

The point I’d like to make is that we have a model for ecological living right in front of us, and it’s disappearing. Obviously Ladakh is unique, and thus the solutions required to live here are not immediately applicable everywhere. Living in a desert, for example, makes dry composting toilets possible. However, all the elements of “the good life” are here, or at least they were. As Aldo Leopold once wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” By this reckoning, traditional Ladakhi lifeways were oh-so-right.

In conclusion, I’d like to point out that the greatest tragedy of the changes that have been brought by development and tourism is that they come at the precise time when the rest of the world needs to be learning from Ladakh. Modern, “developed” life demands too much from the Earth, and too much from us. It creates too much waste. And it arguably hasn’t made us much happier overall. Without romanticizing it, I see in traditional Ladakhi life an inspiring model for how a vibrant culture can thrive within the regenerative capacities of its environment. In Ladakh’s present, I see much cause for concern, as most of those values are disappearing. And in Ladakh’s future, well, I’ll not be so bold as to make predictions. All I can suggest is that insight can come from some interesting places…even toilets.

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Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind east of Leh.

[1] Due to the solar intensity, it can still get up to 33 degrees in the summer, comparable to the rest of India. Humidity usually hovers around 50%, though, so in the shade it cools down quickly. Source: http://www.mustseeindia.com/Ladakh-weather

[2] The few non-essentials that Ladakhis historically kept, such as the gorgeous turquoise-encrusted headdresses that Ladakhi women wear on very special occasions, called perak, were passed down from generation to generation, and thus represented the accumulated wealth of many ancestors. Such items, however, were rare.

Timothy is continuously impressed by India and its people. Its development challenges combined with its immense human potential make it a fascinating study. He is looking forward to being immersed in India's rich history and contemporary culture. He is proud to be counted among AIF's Fellows and is excited to contribute to the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust's valuable conservation efforts. He hopes to increase the market share of SLC-IT's Himalayan Homestays program, and generally increase its viability, sustainability, and visibility in the international context. He also aim to develop monitoring tools for the Conservancy's social programs. Prior to AIF, Timothy has done an internship in Sri Lanka, have had previous travels in India and recently graduated from Tulane University with a M.S. in Disaster Resilience.

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One thought on “Thinking About Toilets, and then Thinking Beyond Toilets

  1. Tim – great essay – happy you are doing well and seeing something new and different in the world – George Haddow

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