The heritage of public baths tells a revitalising story of cultures and customs.
It’s 2500 BC and the lost city of Mohenjo-daro houses the first public bath known to man. Amongst the chronicled rubble, the Great Bath’s construction of baked bricks served as a large communal pool for ritualistic purification: it shaped an age where cleaning and purification of body and soul were linked.
While bathing was ritualised by the early men, it was revolutionised by the Greeks and Romans. The Roman public baths have embroidered the spa culture and its heritage for eons. It was a time when bathing was a collective activity and daily modicums of life updates were gregariously discussed. People gathered and socialised in scores, and the act of bathing got coloured with life and spirit.
The act of bathing being a social gala only spurred along the ages, as cultures integrated their customs and etiquettes with the cleansing tradition.
1. Turkish Hammams
The grandiose of the Turkish bathing houses sprawls across three areas: a steam room with a marble stone as the focal point, a room for bathing, and a cool room for post-bathing activities. Enter through the archaic structure to find in hand a towel, a pair of sandals, and a kese to scrub the skin. The reflection of the Roman export of the 7th century is evident with gilded domes, beautifully constructed archways, and marble fountains dotted along the aesthetic circle.
Bathing has been known to prolong an age of spiritual and physical purification. Nudity was optional and thus areas were gender-segregated. It was where social relationships forged and fostered, and even cultural rituals incorporated the practices of bathing. As the warmth in air runs through and seeks to rejuvenate you, the Turkish Hammams are an invigorating sight to behold.
Spotlight: Cagaloglu Hamami and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, Istanbul
2. Russian Banyas
The rich tradition of public bathing found itself at the centre of activity in earlier times. The Russian banyas house a hot steam room with altitude defining the degree of warmth: the higher you go, the higher the steam gets. A pool of cold water awaits to be plunged into, and in some places like Siberia, people jump directly in the snow after a warm session. The ritual also involves hitting oneself with a bath broom: i.e. a bunch of birch twigs, called veniki. The brisk lashes are believed to open pores and increase circulation, and also cater to a prominent belief of self-flagellation.
The spiritual sanctity of bathing is maintained till today, as visits to bathhouses on Sundays continues as a tradition. The bathhouses are gender-separated and notify nudity to be optional, and are spotted with fitness centres, salons, and restaurants.
Spotlight: Sanduny Bath Houses, Moscow
3. Finnish Saunas
Finland’s celebration of steam baths comes packaged in the name itself – sauna is a Finnish word, which defines the activity. The cold climate propelled the country’s obsession with hot steams, constructed through heated huts, which also served as homes and allowed to do chores like heating meats. The smoke saunas would be heated by a wood stove, allowing locals a warm haven, after which they would plunge in a cold lake or roll around in the snow for better body circulation.
The legend of Finnish saunas is tantamount to the Roman public baths, with the steam baths sprawling across the city in copious numbers. The proportion of the saunas to people in the country hint towards their undying popularity. Also, families have been known to carry portable saunas - that’s a glimpse of the level of reverence these baths hold.
Spotlight: Rajaportin Sauna and Sauna Hermanni, Helsinki
4. Japanese Onsens
In a country rooted in traditions, the Japanese public baths have evolved with the culture. The bathhouses known as onsen are the hot springs, which are spread through the country, owing to its geographical location. Brewing as natural formations for years now, the hot springs are a result of significant volcanic activity, which continues to make the country the perfect heating pad.
The public bath tradition has spurred along with Buddhism reaching its peak in Japan. The spiritual and physical revitalisation was associated with immense value by people of all classes and was quickly transformed into a quotidian activity. The onsens follow a code of conduct and etiquette, including mandatory nudity and rinsing off before entering. They are complemented with bathing facilities and luxuriously built inn structures to revisit the bathing rituals.
Spotlight: Jigokudani Onsen, Yamanouchi, Japan
5. Korean Jimjilbangs
Bathing and cleansing is a family affair for the Koreans. The Korean bathhouses, or jimjilbangs, are ubiquitous in the country owing to the abundance of natural hot springs. The cultural significance places on these public baths is palpable as they stay open through all 24 hours in a day and also offer lodging at night.
The steam houses use baked clay resulting in detoxification and jade in saunas, which act as stress and pain relievers. Here, the Turkish kese is often replaced with other body scrubs to promote circulation. The saunas dictate a movement from the hot tubs to the cold pools and back to the tubs to efficiently sweat out the toxins. The steam rooms mandate disrobing and hence are gender-segregated. The culture is quickly setting a modern pace with placing golf courses, food courts, salons, and gardens along these bathhouses.
Spotlight: The Spa in Garden Five, Seoul, South Korea
Luxurious public baths and spa facilities find their roots in a culture veering towards spiritual and bodily cleansing. Steeped in a rich legacy and adapting to customs, explore the public baths dotted across the world, which ooze with a ravishing comfort.