Don’ts and Dos of Ladakhi Loos

Don’ts and Do’s, for Ladakhi Loos 

Ashish Kothari 

Ladakhi loos (LLs), or dry toilets, are one of the region’s many sustainable, traditional practices. I would have said ‘venerated’, except I’m not sure they have much spiritual significance. But ecological and economic they do. Firstly, Ladakh is a cold desert with (in general) scarce water resources, so any techniques to do one’s job without having to use water are welcome. Second, LLs provide a very useful output, i.e. human manure that is used in farming. Ladakhis mercifully don’t have the ‘how can we use human manure, ugh’ attitude that much of the rest of India has. Nothing spiritual here too … just plain, common-sense matter-of-factness. 

Much of Ladakh continues to use LLs, many still in rather rough, no-frill ways, and increasingly many with innovations like better ventilation, separate entry points for the liquid and the solid stuff, conveniently placed toilet paper, and/or other amenities that the old ones lacked. Unfortunately, urbanized or modernizing villages are now also adding flush toilets, especially while catering to tourists or in the houses of the new rich. This is one factor in an increasing water crisis in some parts of the region, especially Leh town which is exploding with hotels and mansions. And so, if you are a tourist here, do try to use the LLs where available … but there are some important rules to keep in mind. Hence this simple guide on DONTs and DOs.  

Ok, first off: DONTs are more important than DOs! 

Do NOT look into the LL hole which you are supposed to use for doing your job; this is the only sight in Ladakh that is not worth it. Unless of course you have a fascination for human manure (humanure?), both already formed and about to be formed.  

NEVER use a cellphone while using LL; I have a friend who had the mortification of dropping one inside the hole, and the even greater mortification of watching while her hosts fished it out of the, well, not-yet-quite-formed-manure. (I’m happy to give you her contacts if you want to check what happened to the phone, or how she got over her embarassment). 

Most LLs don’t have nails or rods on which you can hang your trousers/skirts etc, so first, look around inside for a clean place to put your below-the-belt clothes. If there is not any, well, you could try simply hitching them up around your waist; with trousers, it involves some complicated one-legged maneuvering that I won’t describe to help readers avoid some blushes. 

If the hole is too wide for you (I have found one or two toilets like this, possibly made keeping in mind giant foreigners), do not attempt to sit spreadeagled across it … chances are you might topple, or in trying to balance, drop one leg into the hole rather than what you should be dropping. Sit sideways if you can … or abandon the LL and just find a rock in the surrounds (trees are hard to come by, remember Ladakh is a cold desert), behind which you can do your job. 

Conversely, if the hole is too narrow (yes, I’ve found these too, very child-friendly but not super for those who’ve left that stage behind), you need to be rather accurate in your aim. And if not, well, be prepared for some extra use of sand/dirt/soil/leaves (rare)/other material (I’m coming to these shortly). 

Keep toilet paper or other appropriate wiping material well within arm’s reach. The right leaves … rough but not gratingly so … are hard to come by in Ladakh, so I’m not sure what the ‘other’ could be, other than the paper this article is published on, but perhaps you’re more innovative than I am. But like I say, keep it within reach – getting up to fetch it can be a bit messy. And look around you, there may be a bin to throw the used toilet paper into; too much TP does not make for good quality manure! 

Once you’re done, and have safely arranged your clothing around you, don’t just leave.  Always, always, shovel some sand/dirt/soil/leaves (rare)/other material that is conveniently kept on one side, into the hole, to be considerate to the potentially sensitive olfactory preferences of subsequent users. But before you do that, check the consistency and nature of the sand/dirt/soil/leaves (rare)/other material; if very fine, make sure you cover your nose in advance, else you may be reduced to a sneezing bout, and who knows what else you may drop into the hole then. (If you’ve got used to carrying a mask around due to COVID, keep up the habit post-COVID too!). 

Some LLs are open to the sky; I have used one that looked up into some beautiful craggy hillsides, and I took double the amount of time doing my job because I kept scanning to see is some Snow leopard may be taking an interest in me. But wait, why I am telling you this? Oh yes, DO look, you may well see something interesting, but also be careful; you may actually see something and the excitement/scare/surprise may cause you to do one of the above DONTs. 

Many LLs do not have lighting inside; Ladakhis have an amazing constitution and manage to do all their jobs before nightfall. So if you’re the type that feels the urge post-dusk, DO keep a torch handy. Preferably not the one in your cellphone … remember what I said above? 

And once you’ve done, happily so if you’ve used the above tips, DO complement your hosts on keeping a Ladakhi dry toilet going even as many others are succumbing to the flush variety. And while you’re at it, DO write me complementing me on my, well, dry humour … 

(November 2021)

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