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E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: Extract

In this section Collingham looks at the role played in colonial life in India in the late nineteenth century by the British mania for personal hygiene.

In the 1870s George Hunter commented that ‘ in tropical climates the daily bath has long been a regular institution, but it is only within the last few years that it has been generally practised in England.1 On arrival in Britain at the beginning of the First World War the young Godden sisters ‘even as children ... noticed the unwashedness of English people’s skins and clothes’.2 While, for the Edwardians, ‘Daily baths were by no means taken for granted’3, it was common for their compatriots in India to take two baths a day whereupon they would change all their clothes. Despite the significantly greater importance placed on personal cleanliness in British India, the Anglo-Indian bathroom failed to follow the European example in that it did not develop into a private place.
One explanation for this lies in the backwardness of Anglo-Indian bathroom equipment. In Calcutta in the 1870s privileged members of the Anglo-Indian community were able to connect their bathrooms to a sewerage system, and judging from an advertisement in The Englishman for the latest sanitary fittings ‘embracing all the latest improvements … now being used in London, Liverpool and Glasgow’ they were able to furnish their bathrooms in some style. Even so, Government House, Calcutta was not fitted with a bathroom with running water until 1905, the last year of Curzon’s viceroyalty.4 Flush toilets reached Simla just before the First World War, and the residents of New Delhi rejoiced in ‘running water and pull-the-plugs’ in the 1930s,5 but even in the 1940s the majority of Anglo-Indians still had the kind of bathroom John Masters describes.
A ghuslkhana corresponds in function to a bathroom, but it is a profound misconception to think of white porcelain, taps, or water sanitation. The ghuslkhana is small and square and has a hole in the outer wall to let out water and let in snakes. One corner, around that outlet, is fenced in by a low parapet the height of a single brick. In this enclosure sits an oval zinc tub. Outside the parapet is a slatted wooden board to stand on, and a wooden towel horse. Ranged along the inner wall are a deal table holding an enamel basin, a soap-dish, and a jug; a chamber pot; a packet of Bromo hanging from a nail; and a wooden thing on four legs whose proper name may possibly be ‘toilet’, but which was never called anything but ‘the thunderbox’ … When a sahib wishes to use [the thunderbox] … he shuts both doors and, when he has finished, opens the outer door, shouts, ‘Mehtar!’ into the empty air, and forgets all about it.
William Hart pointed out that in India ‘servants … stand for what is represented by water pipes and by sanitary systems at home.’6 But the reliance on servants to empty and clean the thunderbox and to bring in and empty out the bath water, made a mockery of the bathroom as a private space. The job of the sweeper made this servant in particular privy to his master’s or his mistress’s most intimate bodily functions; ‘[The sweeper] knew more about the state of the household’s health than the people concerned did themselves … and he was quite liable to spread it round the compound that the memsahib was going to have a baby before she had really grasped the fact herself.7

E.M. Collingham Imperial Bodies (London: Polity, 2001) pp.174-6


1 Hunter A New and Complete Domestic Medicine p.199.

2 Godden Two p.13.

3 Lambert Unquiet Souls p.146.

4 The Englishmen 14 February 1870 p.1; Gilmour Curzon p.146.

5 For sanitation and conservancy in Simla see Kanwar Imperial Simla pp.65-9; Mrs Viola Bayley p.41.

6 Masters Bugles pp.84-5.

7 Hart Everyday Life p.72.

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