Sunday, 6 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Stepping into a Banya

"The day you spend in the Banya is the day you do not age." 
  (В кото́рый день па́ришься, тот день не ста́ришься.)

Banya or the traditional Russian steam bath is a unique cultural element which dates back centuries. Besides providing amazing health benefits like detoxification and removal of dead skin, it serves as an avenue for up-close and personal interactions. Russians love to relax in the banya with their friends and family, sipping a glass of kompot (fruits boiled in water and preserved in masor jars for the next season) and engaging in candid conversations with the least trace of pretense. A typical banya is a wooden bathhouse which has at least two rooms - a pre-bath for hanging clothes and resting, and a hot room with wooden benches for steaming and washing. Full-fledged banyas have a separate washing room with hot and cold water taps. The steam inside a banya is generated by pouring water on rocks heated in a stove. Bathers warm themselves up in the steam room and cool off in the outer chamber, repeating this process for as long as they wish to. After a good sweat, they lash each other using a bunch of birch or oak leaves (venik) to promote blood circulation. Sometimes they jump into a cold lake or simply roll around in snow. Shuttling between hot and cold is believed to strengthen the natural resistances of the body.

"Banya Wait U" - my host whatsapp-ed me while I was at school
My first experience in a banya was at my host’s house. Friends were coming over and the banya was being readied for them. Unsure about a communal bath, I chose to go alone. Though I had familiarized myself with the concept, I was a gawky first-timer feeding on curiosity rather than a sense of purpose. I fooled around, showered and got out. 

A few weeks later I got invited to a banya party at a friend’s country house. There were four of us including one young man. It was past 10 pm when we entered the bath. Winter was setting in and the temperature had dropped to -5 degree Celsius. The only male among us decided to skip the banya and doze off on the sofa. So it turned out to be a girls' night out at the banya. We went in with spare clothes and towels and bottles of apple kompot for refreshment. My friends quickly undressed as if it was the most normal thing to do. Not wanting to look stupid, I followed suit. We were three naked girls – all different sizes yet perfectly at ease with our bodies. As beads of sweat dripped from our skins, the topics of discussion swung from career to culture. We helped each other with the venik, taking turns to get our juices flowing. 

There was no concept of shame and for good reason. Why should anyone be ashamed of his or her body when there is little unnatural about it. Yet I come from a world where piety and modesty are indirectly proportional to the amount of skin revealed, where it is not normal or acceptable for friends to hang out in their birthday suit. I could only smile at the polar opposite ideals of morality. The steam started getting to us after a while. And guess what happened next? We dived into the snow that had piled up outside. Like little children oblivious to the portentous powers of the human body, we made snow balls under the starlit sky. Rejuvenated after the banya date, we drank tea and ate cookies and laughed about silly nothings. 

That is one night I will never forget in my life. 

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