The Legacy of Waste Management in Ancient India

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Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind and false ego-all together these eight constitute my separated material energies-Bhagavad-gita 7.4

Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere… Yajur Veda,5:43

From time immemorial, protecting the environment has always been a priority and legal protocols were implemented wherever necessary. Ancient Indian civilization always believed to live in harmony with nature and traditionally toned hygienic environment as described in Vedas, Upanishads, Smiritis and Dharmashastras. Worshipping nature as deity and recognizing earth as mother as they are the basic necessities of human kind to exist on the earth shows a kind of conservation ethics that comes through history, culture, religion and Vedic philosophy. From our ancient literatures and Kautilya”s Arthshastra, it was mentioned that maintaining sanitation of habitat was essential and inevitable. In the Vedic period, India was rural and pastoral and even in Rig Veda there is no mention of urban life.

However gradually the concept of urban areas started coming into picture and some examples are seen in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. The sanitization and waste management techniques spread through trade route around India. Drainage systems are considered as a corner stone of urbanism development in the history of India. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that drainage and sanitation are some of the major characteristics of the settlements of the Indus. Recent excavations at Harappa have shown to have flushed toilets in almost every house and were linked to the respective city’s central drainage network and the solid waste was discharged into a rectangular jar soak-pit for collection (Fig.1). The Waste Management Techniques used in Ancient India were successful enough to recycle the household wastage. Burning of wood or coal was used for cooking purpose and the carbon was decomposed underground. People used to consume freshly prepared food, so no packaging was done to pollute the environment. Villagers followed easy techniques and dug a small hole in the backyard to collect daily household waste and covered it with mud/sand till the pit got leveled. After a few months, this land was used in the farms as compost (Fig. 2). In another method big holes were made near big tree and the waste was collected in it. The waste contents were mixed with the mud during watering of the tree and were slowly converted into compost. Returning of food waste to soil was a common practice since Vedic times, sustainably recycling nutrients and micronutrients and in present day we are experimenting this technique as phytoremediation.

The real problem of Waste started through the invention of the plastic in the name of modernization. At the same time we are not following the grandeur and brevity of the Vedas in the disciplines of modern era. It is time that we need to understand the legacy of art and science of our ancient traditions with precisely focusing on sustainable consumption and production patterns of solid waste to promote concepts like ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, ‘Zero Waste’ and ‘Circular Economy’. We should not forget our ancient legacy of waste management and need to take corrective measures which will surely make our future generations proud.

Author Information: Dr Debkumar Chakraborty, N-PDF, Bioengineering and Environmental Sciences Lab, CEEFF, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (CSIR-IICT), Hyderabad-500 007

Fig1: An elaborate sanitary and drainage system (Indus cities) (Source: Courtesy of Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, University of Wisconsin - Madison. See

Fig. 2 Traditional agricultural waste management technique used in India (Source image:

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