Note the heading carefully. It does not say Temples vs Toilets. For me, both are absolutely vital. I am an intensely religious person beset with a temperamental stomach. My wife is of the view that both are due to a high-strung nature. I prefer like Beach the butler to say that it is all due to the lining of my stomach.

And so, in my 46 years, I can say with confidence that I have seen more temples and toilets than anyone else of my age. How many of you have seen the temples and toilets of village Pathai, Tirunelveli District for instance? How many have used the loo halfway up the Tirumala Hill? How many have called at the nearest public convenience to the Kapaliswarar Temple? I have and let me tell you, these are unforgettable sights. Having been there and done that so to speak, I can say with authority that there is much to be desired at both, temples and toilets.

Some may argue that temples are meant for spiritual communion while loos are for communion with Nature. But let us not forget that religion began with worship of Nature, though not of the variety I am speaking of. But then is not all Nature one?

But to get back to the subject of communion with Nature and in natural surroundings, my earliest memories are of being taken to Pathai village for the annual temple festival. Doing your business meant going to the fields, for our house, though large, had no loo for the more solid of the ablutions. And so off you went, carrying lota etc and as you crossed the fields, you took care not to lift your eyes while crossing the ladies lines. Not that they minded. You could overhear snatches of conversation pretty well. “There goes Saraswathi’s son…”, “Born in London I hear and by tearing open the stomach…”, “How can he be so dark if he was born abroad…?” etc. Some of the bolder ones would even greet the menfolk they knew by name.

In the men’s corner, all would be silence. There was spiritual communion at its best. The silence was like that at a Trappist monastery, except for the sounds of er…Nature. The point I am making is that a temple festival had no conveniences. Matters would have gone on like this for years had it not been for stubborn cousins of the feminine gender. They preferred to abstain from calling on Nature till their return to urban surroundings where the business could be done on porcelain. My imperious grandmother ordered a loo to be built and that was that. Ours became the first house with a modcon in the village.

Years later, when I was relating this to an uncle of Sarada’s and he was a man with a scatological sense of humour too, he had his own story to narrate. On qualifying for the IAS, he was posted to the town of Bahraich in UP (or was it MP), where the loo was just a hole in the ground. And if you were slow in delivering, pigs at the other end would grunt and encourage you with word and gesture. A colleague of his had a better tale to relate about Ongole (or was it Nidadavole). There, everyone gathered in an open field and pigs swarmed in, the average ratio being one pig to every man. The droppings were gobbled up even while in free fall and rarely touched the ground. And so no cleaning up afterwards.

But I am deviating from the theme of temples vs toilets. To get back, let me include a story that illustrates the above-mentioned traditional use of pigs. Chidambaram as you know has temples for Vishnu and Shiva in the same premises despite intense Iyer-Iyengar rivalry. The story goes that a child did its business just at the dividing line between the two sanctums and each sect felt it was the other’s problem. Go get some vibhuti and spread it on the turd said the Iyengars, after all it is made from burnt cow dung. To which the Iyers thundered that it would be best if Varahaswami (alluding to Vishnu incarnating as a boar) was called in to clean up. And in case you thought children were not allowed to defecate in temples, let me tell you, you are mistaken. One reason why my dad became an agnostic was because he saw a kid’s rear being washed with abhishekam water at a temple on a hill. Just goes to show temples lack toilets.

There are sadly, several similarities as well. The paths leading to temples and toilets are invariably filthy in our country. Most often, the toilets are built very close to the temple entrance. Both places are always wet. And now, even worse, both use glazed tiles or if in North India, white marble (locally known as marbul).

The path to temples brings to mind the way to the Aladi Amman shrine in my village. It was a tradition laid down by grandmom that on the day of departure from the village, we had to pray at this shrine to a powerful goddess. Unfortunately, the way there was also where most of Mela Pathai (yes, our one horse-cart village had two divisions) did its business. And by mid morning, your path was strewn with sculptures in various shades of yellow, all wrought by human behinds. While young we took it in our stride (even though I was born, as I never tire of stating, in England) but my sons (though born only at St Isabel’s Mylapore) jibbed at the idea. The only way out was to invent a game as to who could identify what each invidual shape resembled. This was a hit (Appa – see just like Qutb Minar, Appa – look at this one – must have eaten chocolate etc) and presto, we made it to the temple. Sarada (born at EV Kalyani only) did not approve.

What we need are more toilets, that is for certain. But our temples can do some good work by inculcating in our people a feel for hygiene though it is all going to be an uphill battle. Defecating in public is part of our heritage. You just need to look out of the railway carriages in the mornings. You are sure to be greeted with a 21 bum salute. Those who face the train sometimes even wave. The more bashful ones cover their faces but not their bases.

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