By Aman Saxena Complete relaxation, an intense feeling of well-being, a uncomplicated happiness – a good hot bath is one of the most sensual pleasures in life. More than a matter of cleanliness, it holds a mirror up to the prevailing culture – a social activity – at the Hammam-e-Kadimi in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal.
At a time when health farms and institutes of balneo-therapy are springing up all over the world, and when the body – soaped, oiled, perfumed and massaged – is the object of the most devoted attention. Hammam-e-Kadimi could well be an alternative for the treatment of lifestyle diseases as well, opine experts of naturopathy and Unani medical system. The Bhopal based Hammam-e-Kadimi, built by Dost Mohammad Khan, is almost similar to those found in Turkey. It is a three-chambered structure joined by a corridor. The entrance chamber has a vaulted roof with taqchas on all sides. The other two have domed roofing. It is however the steam chamber that is of significance. A large copper vessel is used to heat water that is stored in a tank above it. The heat is generated with the help of wooden logs inserted in arched basement.
The steam is taken through copper pipes embedded in the floor and walls of the chamber. From the rooftop one can see five openings called the (naak) nose and (kaan) ears that maintain the ventilation inside. The hammam opens very year after Diwali and continues till Holi. A typical hammam consists of three interconnected basic rooms similar to its Roman ancestors; the sicaklik (or hararet-caldarium) which is the hot room, the warm room (tepidarium) which is the intermediate room and the sogukluk which is the cool room. The sicaklick usually has a large dome decorated with small glass windows that create a half-light; it also contains a large marble stone at the centre that the customers lie on, and niches with fountains in the corners. This room is for soaking up steam and getting scrub massages. The warm room is used for washing up with soap and water and the sogukluk is to relax, dress up, have a refreshing drink, sometimes tea, and where available, nap in private cubicles after the massage. Usually there is a five-step progression through the hammam. First is the seasoning of body with heat; second is the vigorous massage; third is the peeling off of the outer layer of skin, fourth, the soaping and fifth relaxation. A masseur is assigned depending on the clients build. The client lies down on a slab that rises about one meter above the floor.
The hot steam makes the limbs become soft and rubbery, and ready for a message. The masseur starts pulling, twisting, kneading and pummeling the client like lumps of dough. After this massage the body is scrubbed using some kind of body brush down the back with long sweeps from shoulders to waist. Day’s accumulation of dead skin and dirt then gets curled into the hair of the brush. The entire body is then soaped and rinsed by pouring water over head. That is that, and it is time to relax. In Arabic, hammam means “to heat”. In its steamy rooms, the sun does not shine brightly; only a few feeble rays filter though the coloured glass of the honey comb of little round and star-shaped apertures in the domes. The rays of light hang in the floating steam and lend a sense of enchantment to the murk, whose gray shadows are, it seems propitious for meeting the djinns that haunt these places. After the traditional scrubs, massage and stretches comes on all-over wash with soap, followed by a rinse at the fountain, where you use a tinned copper cup to splash yourself with refreshing cold water. Finally you return to the room where you had left your clothes, the maslak, to relax, drink mint tea and enjoy Oriental pastries. What lingers most in the mind are the sounds. Water splashing against your body or on the floor, rinsing away the dirt as it bubbles down the gutters; the sound of cups clinking, murmured conversations, sometimes the clear tinkle of laughter on women’s day; a percussion concert that rings out against the marble and the high ceilings. Hammam also serve as a social destination for many ceremonies before weddings, celebrating newborn babies, and beauty trips. The hours for men are usually in the morning and evening, while women go in the afternoon. Visiting the hammam is healthy.
After one session in the hammam skin is both exfoliated and clean. In the dressing room, which is sorrounded by a private stall, you are obliged to remove all your clothing and wrap a cotton cloth around you sarong style. This means that the dress code for both men and women in the hammam is underwear (or shorts) only. Once properly dressed, the attendant will ask you to sit or lie down for an approximately 20 minutes while you work up a sweat. This is for the purpose of relaxation and preparation for a full body exfoliation.
Next, the attendant will begin to scrub your body with a loofa type brush called a keesa. After finishing the scrub, your attendant may ask you if you need a soap, towel or shampoo. However, it may be a good idea to bring a towel of our own, as some hammams do not offer towel services. Once bathing session comes to a close, you can go to collect your clothes and lounge for a while in the changing area. You can also order soft drinks and other beverages to quench your thirst. Going to a hammam is an eye-opening cultural experience, as it offers a good opportunity to meet and chat with locals.