Peshawar Hamam

My name is Yasmeen Hossain.

I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 8 or 9 years of age when Peshawar was still a part of British India.

Sitting with my Nani (maternal grandmother) in a ubiquitous taangah or horse drawn cart of the city, we passed Central Jail coming from the cantonment area. Nani casually told me that we were going to a Hamam.

Hammam means a public bath and I heard so much from my aunts and older cousins talking about hamam, how they bathed there and felt utterly cleaned. I was quite excited and reached our destination, passing through Kabuli darwaza and Dabgaree.

We got out of the taangah, the horse got rather excited because he saw the hay spilling out at a rickety wooden door. An elderly woman opened the squeaky door and we stepped into a room with wooden benches along the wall and I saw that it had a flooring of dried grass and hay.

It was cozy and warm and the plump lady who was obviously in charge, greeted us with many prayers while Nani removed her burqa, sat on a bench, the rest of the party following her.

She started chatting to the old lady whom I called khala (aunt). They exchanged gossip and we were offered little cups of Peshawari Kahva or sweet green tea, with cardamom.

I was shocked to hear when the old khala told my nanni to take off her clothes. Nanni proceeded without batting an eyelid but I was hesitant. ” Come on child!” said Nanni, “what are you ashamed of?” Gingerly I removed my clothes and the khala opened a door to a small room which was full of steam. You could hardly see a single thing but I could discern large bodies of women reclining on stone floor without clothes.

There were coal burning Angithees or brassiers, all round the room and khala kept pouring water on hot coal to create the steam, which was really very hot. Nanni and I soaped ourselves and khala poured hot water over us.

I was embarrassed but the other ladies were chatting amicably completely un self-conscious. ” I am sure they have been to the Hamam many times”! I thought. The sweat poured down my body and I felt a bit faint, but could not complain. There was a point when nanni decided it was time to end the hot session.

The khala poured cold water over us which was a bit of a shock but refreshing. When we dried ourselves, she took us to another little room which was cool and had straw on the floor with wooden benches. Then our clothes were brought to us and we dressed, feeling clean and exhilarated.

We sat down and khala came back bearing more cups of sweet green tea along with Katlama, a kind of thin elaborate deep fried oily bread. I was nervous and ate that delicious treat heartily. After a while we left getting going to the taangah.

This was my first experience of a Hamam and there have been many more to come later in my life, one in Istanbul.
In Peshawar the Hamam has a very special significance.

Women in the city had no place to go to excepting visits to relatives. Here they met women from other mohallahs and had a chance to put their own lives in to perspective.

This was a place where women used to go together to exchange recipes , to complain about daughters- in- law. So communal baths served a very special purpose in the life of Peshawari women. Not only they refreshed their bodies but minds as well.

Before people had bathrooms and running water in their houses, the hamam was widely used in Muslim countries. In Turkey we have the magnificent hamams built by the famous 15th century Turkish architect Sinan. Also the reputed Fatima Mernisi has given a vivid description of the public baths in Morocco in her novel Dreams of Trespass.

The Muslims brought the tradition of the public baths to the sub-continent. Peshawar city had many such baths, some of which were reserved for women. They were used mostly in the winter months when the fuel was expensive and heating up water at home was difficult.

Khudadad Hamam is one of the oldest in Peshawar, probably five centuries old. It has separate areas for men and women. The clients go through cold, hot and very hot water (steam) baths. Sometimes, hamam is recommended by the hakeems for certain patients of rheumatic and other body pains. There were professional masseurs who would massage people for relaxation.

The word Hamam in Peshawar is generally used for hot bath or sauna. The bathhouse or saqava would operate for men to wash and bath in a big communal bath.

All the traditional hamams in Peshawar were demolished in the past 40 years or so, for modern buildings or shops. However, many cities of Europe are opening places with sauna, massage and other eastern therapies for new clients. Their business is thriving but Peshawar is being suffocated in every way of its cultural heritage.