India, Indians and Water – the Strangely Fascinating Customs and Habits

Ahhhh water. Who’da guessed that there are so many different customs and habits surrounding water that I would encounter when I moved to Bangalore? Not me, I promise you that. From the cost of water, to dealing with the waterfall during monsoon, to how to drink water to new bathroom regimes – I was completely uneducated on the ways of water in India.

Generally speaking, westerners consume, use and waste a ton of water. Back in southern California, homes have swimming pools and automatic sprinkler systems that go off daily at 5:30 am to keep the lawns nice and green. I even remember as a kid that we would turn on the sprinklers just for fun and play in them on hot days just to cool off. Westerners also take insanely long showers because we have either massively huge or massively innovative water heaters so there is never ending hot water – unlike the small geysers in India that push out no more than five minutes of hot water.

Indians on the other hand are normally really great about conserving water. One small bucket can wash and rinse a car, opposed to the western style of using a hose to spray water for minutes on end. The same is true about the bucket shower system used by most Indians. I’ve had to use it in a pinch when the electricity has been off in our flat, boiling water on the gas stove, filling a bucket and using a handled pitcher to bathe. It’s actually not a bad system and definitely saves a ton of water. Although it definitely never offers up the same “ahhh, peace and serenity” experience of my normal shower because it is much more work and definitely not relaxing. But it does get the job done!

My dear friend Ramesh Dhami is snapping a series on water in India. He’s a wonderful photographer and passed me the featured photo and this one to use with my article. The featured photo is plastics outside a water works facility – I love it.

So imagine my surprise when I realised that Indians have a unique water wasting trait when they go to the loo that I’ve never seen before in any other country. At first I just assumed that it was happening because the toilet bowl hadn’t been flushed by the previous occupant when someone entered a stall. But then it happened in the stall I had just exited – which I knew had a clean, clear bowl. It was so strange, why did she flush it again? I had just flushed! Then after some time I realised… everyone did it, every time! Turns out that Indians are double flushers! Yep, a unique trait that I remember that funny little guy on the TV show Alley McBeal having because he said he “liked a fresh bowl” but that’s about it.

I first started noticing it at work while waiting in queue to use the loo. One girl is inside, she does her business, flushes and exits shortly thereafter. The next girl enters and immediately flushes the toilet. Then she ‘goes’, flushes and exits… and this system repeats itself with every single person. I noticed it at hotels and restaurants too. According to my driver Shiva, this will happen everywhere outside the home, in part, he says, out of a fear of contracting a “urinary disease” which I find quite odd. Especially since microbiologists proved decades ago that toilet seats are cleaner than kitchen counters, sponges and – often times – the refrigerator. I learned that back in the 80s and have never thought twice about using a toilet anywhere in the world aside from this one dodgy kebab place in Morocco but I’m not going to get into that! Anyway, I think double flushing is like horn honking here…everyone does it and it is hardwired into peoples’ DNA so there is no changing it.

Let’s move out of the public loos and into the kitchen. This is not an exciting tale but I’m still in a bit of awe and shock so here we go!

I will never forget the first time I saw a lovely Indian woman in a saree balancing a massive open-top, colourful hourglass shaped plastic water container on a cushion sat atop her head. For me it was a wonderful sight but I’m sure for her she would have told me to go take a hike if I even suggested something so stupid! It can’t be a fun part of her day. From what I understand, the water is either pumped from a public well, from a roaming water truck that passes neighbourhood by neighbourhood or, in some cases, bought from an entrepreneur who passes by with his trolley and sells water door to door – I know this because I hear one guy yelling “neeru” every day as he passes. Most of us are fortunate enough to have running water in our homes but in India the water isn’t always a really a safe bet for drinking so we opt for buying or filtering water.

Well, my daughter and I shifted flats a short time ago (that means we moved!) and I still haven’t purchased a water filtration system yet. I really need to get on that. So for the past couple of months we have been buying water bottles for all of our drinking and cooking water needs. I try to buy the 5 litre bottles but more often than not we ended up with 2-litre bottles of Kingfisher or Aquafina water. I’m not proud of the environmental damage I’ve contributed to but sadly it was often the easiest way to purchase water it in my neighbourhood. It drove Shiva a bit crazy too I’m betting because of the constant running out to a shop just for water.

But those days are all over because Shiva opened up my eyes to the beauty of the 25 litre big bottles. Apparently they are sold everywhere and I simply never noticed them or it didn’t register in my blonde brain that they were for consumer sale. All this time I had been spending either Rs. 16 ($0.29 / €0.24) for the 1 litre bottles or Rs. 29 ($0.52 / €0.43) for the 2 litre bottles and I have always thought that was an amazing deal. Back in Barcelona, a 5-litre bottle of water cost approximately Rs. 150 ($2.67 / €2.20) and a small half litre bottle costs anywhere between Rs. 27 – 135 ($0.49 – 2.43 / €0.40 – 2.00) depending on whether it’s purchased in a food shop or a vending machine at a metro station, etc. Retailers can charge whatever they wish because there isn’t fixed MRP there like there is here in India. Hell, I even remember some bars and clubs there charging Rs. 339-474 ($6-8.50 / €5-7) for them. It’s crazy.

So it turns out that for the amazing low price of just Rs. 45 ($0.81 / €0.65), we now have 25 litres of really delicious water at home. I honestly can’t believe it and can’t believe I was buying small bottles this whole time. I always knew that the bottled water companies in the US and Europe were charging insane amounts but I never realised just how insane until now. I still can’t believe that for only Rs. 150 refundable deposit and Rs. 150 for the dispenser we are all set. We chose the brand ALPDROP because Shiva suggested it and the taste is great. Shiva also explained the importance of only buying brands that are ISI certified like ALLDROP, which is a government control to guarantee quality. Although I was in a meeting at UB Group yesterday and the guys told me that Kingfisher water offers the same unit size and they deliver so I will be switching brands soon.

Now we just need for monsoon to kick in here in Bangalore and my strange fascination with water will be complete … and then I’ll probably start bitching and moaning about not being able to wear nice shoes and how every day is a bad hair day because it’s always frizzy – yay!

XOXO Angela

© 2012 Angela Carson, Angela’s Adventures in Bangalore

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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19 Comments on “India, Indians and Water – the Strangely Fascinating Customs and Habits

  1. hahaha 🙂 well its fascinating isn’t it Angela 🙂

  2. Hehehe, you missed one more water related thing in India — how water is used for cleaning the floor. Pour water all over the floor (floors outside the home interior) and then brush it away with a bunch of sticks! It’s one of these things that I found absurd initially but now that I’ve learned the technique, it’s really effective.

    • hahaha I’ve seen that around but haven’t tried it. I can imagine you on your terrace working your bunch of sticks in style 🙂 Say hi to P for me xoxo

  3. Nice Read Angela….Will get back to the complete article with your experience in Bangalore over water….
    Well…..I am surprised everyday to see the way water is accepted,used, wasted and disposed in India…..Most activities in small communities revolve around water…from collecting (in queues) to how its used…washing, cleaning, bathing (including animals) and drinking and cooking………! You must also experience the different ways people drink water…….bottle, jars, taps, pots……..and so on……Happy to see one of my pic up with your blog…fits good…..my brother did an article for Deccan Herald on plastics and flags way back in 1999….and we also wrote about water issues in Ladakh around the same time….! Hope as many people will see this and give more thought to water and its management………! Next time you should attend the Film festival ‘Voices from the Waters’ its an annual event initiated by Mr George Kutty, featuring international films and documentaries on water from across the globe……..Jai Ho…….All Butterflies need Water…….to Flutter….!

    • Hi sweetie, thanks so much for adding to the conversation. You are right about activities revolving around water, that’s a great observation. Love the line “all butterflies need water to flutter” 🙂 See you soon xoxo

    • Hey RSD, WTF happened to you since Lovedale? Good to see ur doing well.

      AC – The fascination with water extends all over India. I am from Chennai and I remember as a kid home for vacation taking baths from water that was pumped out of the well in the back yard and the water being almost 100 ft down. Then come the monsoons and we could dip in from the top. Our house helps daughter who I was budddies with would leave one of those "kudams" – those hourglass shaped water carriers u mentioned in tamil – out in the summer sun and by evening it was hot enough to shower in.

      I never remember paying much for water in the time that I was in India…Living in Michigan now, on the shores of Lake Superior, to this day I do not understand the concept of buying bottled water. When my wife and I visited India 2009 after being out for almost a decade, I couldnt see myself NOT buying bottled water in India even at the atrocious prices charged. Atleast in my mind I wasnt comfortable with water quality at home…in essence I had turned into what I said I would never morph into. HaHa!

      As for the double flushers…this is my theory…before the western style of toilets became la mode, there was the ubiquitous Indian style of toilets. They didnt have standing water in them. Normal practice was you would pour some water to wet the porcelain before you did your do. Why you ask? It made the subsequent 2nd flush more…shall we say effective? 😀 Old habits die hard and hence the double flush is the vestigial habit of yore that refuses to die.

  4. Well, those habits of us you’ve explained in the blog is because until recently there wasn’t tap at home (probably until some 10-15 years back) and most of us fetch water from the well backyard or carry it from the municipal supply trucks.

    Hence we have to squeeze every ounce of it before having to fetch/carry again. It’s lots of hard work. Also taking shower from bucket water is an exercise in itself because you have to fetch water in mug (gotta bend to fetch it). So we stretch each mug more than it’s possible before going for another one. The habits were passed onto generations.

    Each house has borewell and so all water consumed gets recycled naturally leaving very little waste of water.

    I remember the options of showering when I was a kid (about 20 years back). I grew up in a village – southern tip of India (Kanyakumari District) and the options for getting a bath are; (1) fetch water from the well and have generous shower, (2) have a minimal shower from the municipal water pipes at home or (3) jump into the pond/streams because we have plenty of em back home and I always opt for the third one except for the weekdays.

    The first time I used bathroom shower was when I was about 19 years old and came to my relatives house in the City (Chennai). It took a while to get used to the custom, but now am use to it though sometimes I wish I could go back to my hometown and jump into those pond/stream/rivers. Hmmm…..

    Anyhow, India is all about options. If you are willing to look around, you will find what you are looking for 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing so much, that was super to read. It never occurred to me that someone may never experience a shower but that is truly a reality for people in smaller villages isn’t it? A small price to pay for tranquil, quiet living I’d say 🙂 Loved your comment!!! -angela

  5. Actually, Ange, I must disagree, respectfully. India as a whole is not very good about conserving water. The efficiencies in bathing to which you refer are, as you pointed out and Mr. Mhoses confirmed, more a function of the efforts involved in getting water. The sad and terrible truth is that India has not conserved, nor respected, this most precious of resources.
    I am a south Indian by birth and when i left India, oh aeons ago, India’s rivers were clean, Bangalore had water bodies that sparkled in winter sunlight, streams actually babbled over multicolored stone beds and a boy could safely learn about frogs and such without worrying about dodging sludgy plastic waste (the stench is irrelevant because boys don’t mind stinking). The rains were plentiful and water and the state it is in was not an issue.
    Would that it were still so.
    India, urban India, and all of India is going to be urban India pretty soon, is facing a water crisis. And given the calm rationality with which India’s managers approach crises, well, I’m not sanguine.
    just saying.

    • Hey, I haven’t actually spent anytime near water to be honest so I’m glad you chimed in with your comment about the bodies of water. But now that I think about it, I would never go swimming here outside of a hotel pool because of the stories of pollution I’ve read. Hope all is good with you! -angela

  6. I relocated to US recently and did not like the taste of the tap water. So we bought 5 gallon cans a dispenser and we are set. The cost of each gallon is about 15- 25c based on where we fill it. But I think it is a very good deal.

  7. Hi Angela, really enjoyed reading this post. After years of bathing from a bucket of water even though we have a perfectly good shower, heat and water supply, i hate showering under a shower as i don’t feel woken up unless i go through the blasted-to-reality wakeup routine every morning. And unless i have it i feel i am not me the whole day. Almost like that hilarious episode on ‘Seinfeld’ when the shower-heads are replaced by low-flow ones.
    Looking forward to the new blog and more posts like these 🙂
    Nithin

    • See…I find that so interesting. The bucket shower – although great for conserving water – is not in any way fun for me. I love having a nice “rain forest” shower every morning or when I want to de-stress. It’s funny how what we are brought up with is the way things feel “right” to us.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. I was relating to my son the joy of switching on the water heater and hearing the water stream down into a steel bucket in my grandparents’ bathroom whenever we went to India. I loved it, and we were all rationed to one bucket per wash. There was a shower, but it was never used, and this was in Bombay back in the 80s. Now I live in Australia where there is cyclical drought and we have been on water saving and water restrictions. We time our showers to 3 or 4 minutes and teach our kids the same. No playing with water in the yard as the kids used to do 30 years back. No-one uses sprinklers here any more, all the gardens are either drought tolerant or watered using tank water or very minimally with hoses.

  9. Hi Angela,

    another interesting write up…i do not often post comments and thats why this is the first time i am posting comment while i have already read all the hisotrical write ups. I am moving(“SHIFTING”) to Bangalore in couple of days and while searching for info on bangalore i stumbled on to your blog and from there on im hooked.
    I like the way your articles always have a optimistic approach, an humourous undertone which i enjoyed.

    Keep writing and hope to treat you to a cosmo once m in bangalore..

    • Hi Himanshu, thanks for taking the time to comment — and I love that I have come across exactly how I’ve always intended to (positive but with a twist of fun) so that was amazing to read. And I’m always up for a cosmo so if you see me about in town do come up and introduce yourself 🙂 Happy shifting!! -angela

  10. Hi Angela,

    Its nice to read your experience with water !! May be you missed to mention a cultural part related to it. Have you experienced about offering free water in restaurants?? I dont know in star hotels. But in all the restaurants except the street shops they offer. Normally in India for the guests at home water is also offered first before offering anything. Before in villages, a mug of water is also offered to the guests to wash their feet before entering the house 🙂 I dont see this now.

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