Environmental squalor is a salient feature of Indian cities, standing in surprising contrast to clean private settings. This study of ideas and practices relating to cleanliness in a South Indian town found that im/purity concepts pertaining to hygiene are closely related to so-called ritual ideas of purity and pollution and are nearer to orthodox beliefs than to germ theories. The danger of dirt is less its direct threat to health but its impact on social status and on the mood of deities, who penalize with misfortune. Cleanliness is crucial for private well-being; public pollution is obsolete.
Damaris Lüthi is an Associated Researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Berne.