Yes, you read right. Manhole covers. Those metal doors that trap sewage underground, manhole covers are essentials – just like water and air. They help keep things underground, so that we do not see our byproducts or smell them either.
A childhood tenet was ‘Every satisfying journey begins with the plush flush of a toilet.’
My obsession with manhole covers began in Norway, when I was walking around the city of Oslo and found some really beautiful designs on these rather mundane aspects of modern existence. But, I was immediately drawn to how symmetrical they were, how seemingly well-placed on their cobbled streets, and I was hooked.
As kids we were always advised to go to the loo before we headed out anywhere. Invariably, 10 minutes into our journey, I would end up hiding behind a bush with my mother keeping watch while I did my business very quickly. Flush with my success, we could continue on our journey. Of course, in this case I didn’t flush.
Sewage can be an unsavory topic depending on whom you speak to. What is potentially unsavory, was, in Scandinavia depicted with beautiful, well-maintained, and very appropriate carvings. These were Manhole Covers.
Manhole covers in Scandinavia
Manhole covers as a topic of discussion is certainly mundane, but in Scandinavia tells stories. In Trondheim for e.g., the manhole covers depicted a very interesting design from the main church Nidaros Domkirke, the main church. This is one of the oldest medieval churches and has some stunning design – including the heads of 3 men in a basket (depicted in the manhole cover), Adam and Eve and some very interesting sculptures of elephants, frogs and gargoyles. It was reminiscent of some works of art in Hindu temples in India.
In Bergen, it depicted the old part of the town – the iconic wooden Scandinavian housing structures – the area known as Bryggen. This was especially beautiful as I discovered walking through the area and really getting a feel of the people really being proud of their landmarks.
In Denmark, one of the most beautiful was of a manhole cover with a soldier engraved into it; in some were the engravings of leaves and birds or flowers, and another was what I thought of as the Tree of Life.
Manhole covers and Yoga
In Yoga, one of the main precepts in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras is the minimum requirements of how to conduct oneself in society. These, the niyamas or social observances are 5 in number. The first is Saucha whose meaning is cleanliness, and which is pertinent to the subject herein. Manhole covers become an essential part of the cleanliness process as they keep the unclean underground and away from human eyes and noses. But to really understand Saucha, it is important o understand the idea of clean versus the idea of unclean.
In my Ashram in Bihar, we are expected to clean the common toilets everyday. It goes in rotation, but, sometimes, we have to go above and beyond the call of duty and clean someone else’s mess. This teaches humility. It teaches you that the unclean is not really so dirty. It takes you beyond the boundaries of your mind. For someone who has a gag reflex to any unsavory smell, cleaning up another person’s shit can be a “challenge”.
Manhole covers in India
In India, manhole covers are not so much beautiful as they are an unseen necessity. Where manhole covers should exist are instead large gaping holes, which inevitably have horrific stories, which people, especially children, fall into. Manhole covers bring to mind images of ‘untouchables’ climbing in without protective gear to dig out waste, a classic handover of our caste system. These people climb in without proper gear, with a couple of others waiting outside to pull the person up and when they divest the sewage of the blockage, the waste is dumped right next to the opening.
In some cases, as roads are being repaved, manholes need to be raised higher so that they may be opened as needed. In some cases, these have been raised upto a foot higher than the rest of the road resulting in uneven road surfaces, and a feeling of falling out of a tree branch when vehicles travel over them.
the niyamas or social observances are 5 in number
What is very interesting is that while in India, drains lay open, and in some places covers do not really cover, so that anyone walking around may, unknowingly step onto a death trap, NYC has manhole covers that are “Made in India”. There, PMOI is your export product par excellence! Our streets runneth over! When we have the poor (read lower caste) in India to make sure that our drains are clean, why should we actually have covered sewage that stays underground? No dignity, no remorse, no regrets.