Have you have experienced a Turkish bath? I can assure you, it is an unforgettable and pleasant experience. Mine was, of course an original, in Turkey. Hammam is Turkish for public baths (remember the soap we had in India?).
Venkat and I were spending a hot summer’s day loitering around along the Sultanahmet area in Istanbul. The family was away in India for the summer, so time was a plenty…passing the Blue mosque, I recall it was Venkat’s brainwave to try out a Turkish bath. The first thought that came to my mind then was a hairy sweaty pot bellied masseur breaking my bones and pulling out all the body appendages from their respective joints…
I was a bit apprehensive, neither of us had any idea as to what it could turn out to be, but we charged ahead and found the original Cagaloglu hamam in Cemberlitas which is centuries old. I would assume that it has changed a bit since the ages, become a bit modern, more hygienic and all that .
We were led upstairs where there are changing/locker rooms and instructed to remove our clothes and wear just the reddish towel they gave us (much like the ‘thorthu’ in Kerala) and come down to the main hall. I think by now we were both quite shaky, but we put on a brave face and trundled downstairs…
The hall that opened out in front of us was really huge and all marble. It was a fantastic sight really, the sun streaming in from the small windows and though the steam put up a real ancient picture…mercifully no smoke. Two islands (Gobek tas) of marble and lots of naked guys lying on them, some washing up near the walls… We were instructed to lie down on one of these slabs.. Man, was the marble hot heated from the bottom). I looked around, there were some masseurs pummelling some guys on a second island, nothing much amiss, no women – they were in another hall…now, that was sad. After some 15 minutes on the marble, and sweat pouring off you, I started to feel a bit sleepy actually and nodded off.. Dreaming of eating vadas at the Saravanabhava when I was jerked out of the pleasant reverie by yes, a hairy sweaty pot bellied masseur with bushy eyebrows, a swirling moustache and a fierce demeanour. I saw that Venkat was fast asleep, no help there. Our friend, the WWF champion thundered in Turkish – if I was a Pakistani tourist. When I answered in my broken Turkish that I was neither, but a Hintli (Turkish for Indian) living in Istanbul, he actually smiled…Yabanci (foreigner) speaking some Turkish; I guess that was endearing to his nationalist pride.
I was to go and lie down on the next island and Mehmetbey (Mr Mehmet) the masseur started with the big loofa scrubber. He virtually took the first layer of skin off me. The feeling was so good that you start to tingle…then he brought a bucket of soapy water and a pillow case with which he raised a fine lather and continued the scrub - talking all the while, of the political situation, economy, the quality of the tourist season that year etc. You will not believe how much dirt comes off you when this guy really gets to work, but then you start to see the same thing with all the others around. This went on for some 15 mts – and then I was told to go and bathe myself. All this while you could smell eucalyptus that some regulars had put into their baths…
Your body is by then burning hot and when you sit on the cool marble floor at the stalls on the side of the room and pour cold water over yourself, you remember the times back home when you drew cool water from the well and poured over yourself…Oh! It was bliss….
Where is Venkat? Aha I see him, he is still supine, lather covered and having a serious conversation on the textile business and its vagaries with his masseur, Venkat is fluent in Turkish, an ‘Ustad’.
Back to the floor after 5 minutes and Mehmetbey is ready for the massage. I am a bit scared now, what the hell is he planning to do? He asks me to lie face down and bends my legs back, one after other till they touch your neck. Then the arms are twisted & turned…oh! You won’t believe the agony in some of those pulls & twists, but afterwards it felt good, unbelievably good!!!
Finishing off, you go back and wash yourself, cool off, go to the bar or your locker room and have a nice tall fruit juice…heavenly.
Maybe I should get a time machine and find my way back to those Roman ages where Mediterranean people just bathed, slept, listened to music, screwed around and ate grapes fed by buxom women….