Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dirty India and Ritual Purity

The first thing that Indians notice when they travel abroad is the difference in public cleanliness. And this isn’t just limited to comparisons with the US or Europe. A friend is right now working in Rwanda and says it’s the cleanest place he’s ever seen. Another friend who visited Ethiopia recently had reports the same from there. Makes me wonder – why is India so dirty?

Of course, there’s that general lack of civil sense in Indians. There’s high population density and the consequent inadequacy of infrastructure. (Although I don’t quite buy the population argument. Sure, there’s a lot more trash to clean but there are also lot more people to clean it, right?) But I also wonder if the brahminical concept of ritual purity has something to do with it too.

When we do a pooja at our house, the remains of the ceremony are supposed to be discarded in a manner that prevents their desecration – they shouldn’t get under one’s feet, for example. Sometimes you feed them to animals or throw them in a river. It’s the latter that my mother often insists on doing. Never mind that the river is so dirty that I wouldn’t step into it even if someone paid me to do it. On any given day, my feet are positively sterilized compared to the river. And yet, the river is more “pure” than my feet.

The same is true for all of our major rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna which are facing a pollution crisis. It’s ironical that we don’t bother to keep our holiest of holy rivers clean.

This time during my India trip I was forced to visit the Khajrana temple in Indore. (I often have to be forced into temple visits.) It struck me as oddly dilapidated and unclean. There was trash and rubble all around. The walls looked like they hadn’t been painted in ages. Again, ironical that one of the most holy temples of the city (and also the richest) should be this unclean.

Makes me think that Indians aren’t really bothered about real physical cleanliness. As long as the ritual of cleanliness is maintained, they’re happy. As long as the pooja remnants are thrown in the river, they’re happy. As long as no one wears a leather belt in the temple, they’re happy. Who cares if there are heaps of trash in the temple and sewer slurry in the river?

This attitude probably carries into other spheres as well.


  1. You should see heap of 'Dona' ( a small leaf) on which Prasadam is given but these donas are thrown here and there, all over without bothering about cleanliness!

  2. I think we Indians do not have that sense of cleanliness in our instincts. If you see any Indian village, town or city; you would find lots of plastic bags, papers and all sort of rubbish. I don't know if it is okay to mention here, but I even noticed a used sanitary napkin thrown on the road.
    People are not at all ashamed of spitting or pissing on the open road (not having enough facilities is altogether a different story). Even in public transport like trains and buses, people consume paan and gutkha and spit here and there without giving a second though of where it will land or who is going to clean it.

  3. So I found someone who also thinks somewhat like me about making environment dirty on name of rituals. Nice work man.

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  4. Exactly the thoughts that have crossed my mind on numerous occasions.
    Spitting here there and everywhere by anyone and everyone is something which highly irritates me. I have never quite been able to figure out why the urge to eject saliva is so strong within us Indians.
    Throwing covers, packages and wrappers right where one stands is another chronic disease with which we suffer......
    Wonder if all this will ever stop :(

  5. It is a small problem of point of view if what exactly is cleanliness, and priorities.

    For us, personal hygiene is more important thatn community cleanliness. Hence we will bathe thrice a day and throw our kachraa on the road outside.
    For others, it is the other-way-round, they need the society clean, but would go three days no a perfume.