Hammam is an ancient bathing ritual that’s now making a splash as a modern spa concept writes Meera Murugesan
I HAVE never understood people who take quick, hurried showers.
It’s acceptable during the morning rush hour, but when you get home after a long day, what could be more relaxing than a long, hot shower or a relaxing soak in a bathtub (if you have one) with scented candles or incense perfuming the air and soft music playing in the background?
Bathing is a therapeutic experience. It is not just about cleansing the body but about promoting wellness and relaxation too and every culture has its own bathing ritual, some of which date back centuries.
For the Turks the hammam has historically played a crucial role in how they care for their bodies and promote wellbeing.
The steam bath as it’s popularly known, embraces a comprehensive approach to cleansing. Both the mind and body benefit from the soothing rituals that calm the senses and ease tired muscles.
It’s a bathing ritual that today is also popular among stressed out urban dwellers.
WATER AND CLEANSING
Hammam has its roots in the Roman baths and resulted from the merging of the bathing rituals of the ancient Romans and Turks.
Initially, it was only for men, but eventually women had their own bathing areas and it soon became a meeting point for women to relax, unwind and socialise.
Hammam is tied to the belief in the curative nature of water says Kam Su En, founder and proprietor of Hammam in Bangsar and Publika, Solaris Dutamas.
There are two versions of the hammam she adds – Moroccan and Turkish and Kam offers the Moroccan option at her spas.
Kam, an accountant, who used to work in an IT consulting firm became entranced with this ancient bathing ritual during a holiday in Morocco.
As she lay on the warm tiles of the bathing room and experienced the various rituals of the hamman, she knew she had to bring the concept back to Malaysia.
But she and her business partner, Adam Demnati, a Moroccan, knew they had to modify the traditional Moroccan concept to suit the urban consumer.
They first visited and personally tried about 26 different hammams in Paris, France to get an idea of the process involved and the products used before introducing the concept locally with the opening of the Bangsar outlet in 2007.
Kam says they did so because they felt the hammams in Paris provided an ideal middle ground which would also work in Malaysia.
“I am very passionate about this. Doing something healing is always rewarding. The hedonistic part of me also wants to give people the chance to indulge in affordable luxury,” she says.
The cornerstone of a Moroccan hammam is the process known as the “gommage”.
Kam says for this, customers enter a delicate warm room, not hot and steaming like a sauna but just warm, where a special black soap made from olives is applied onto the body before a full body scrub.
“This soap, in the exact heat and temperature and humidity of the room, will sponge off all impurities from one’s pores.”
The scrub is usually followed by a Rhassoul clay mask from Morocco that’s rich in minerals and is known to have curative powers, such as reducing inflammation.
“The mask has a soothing ability and puts minerals back into your skin.”
The final stage of the treatment is a full body massage using argan oil, also from Morocco.
Kam says she obtains the argan oil from women’s associations in Morocco which help provide an income for rural women.
Argan oil she adds is endemic to Morocco and high in anti-oxidants. It also gives a good texture during the massage.
Ingredients like frankincense, almond milk, sandalwood and henna are also used in many of the face, hair and body treatments.
The entire process, from bathing to massage is meant to completely cleanse and relax the mind and body.
THE SOCIAL SPA
Kam says one of the key differences between a hammam and a regular spa is the fact that the wellness experience doesn’t take place in isolation.
Hammam is a form of communal bathing and one is encouraged to enjoy the whole process with friends and family. It is a way to bond and relax with loved ones.
“Most spa treatments are solitary experiences but the hammam is a very communal experience which we actually crave because work and the internet has led us to lead very solitary lives. There is always an inherent need for us to connect with others.”
Kam adds that in Morocco, entire families, even babies visit the hammam together. It’s a social experience and elderly women have even been known to pick prospective brides for their sons at these bathing houses.
At both the Bangsar and Publika outlets, most people do not come alone either. Group or couple bookings are the norm as well as mother-daughter pairings or women celebrating a bachelorette party or bridal shower.
There are separate areas to cater for men and women and customers range in age from 6 to 96!
Kam says bathing is one of the first pleasures we experience as infants. It’s a memory that stays with us.
In Morocco she adds people visit a hammam at least once a week. It’s not viewed as a special treat but part of their lifestyle.
And even in Malaysia, people are craving similar experiences. Going to the spa is becoming a regular lifestyle practice for many people.
“It’s a mind body experience and one that never fails to impress,” says Kam.
HAMMAM BEAUTY BENEFITS
Cleans pores of impurities and sloughs off dead skin.
Improves skin elasticity and clarity.
Improves skin tone.
Refines skin texture.
Balances oil secretion in the skin and controls acne
Nourishes skin with vitamin and minerals
EACH country has its own unique bathing tradition. Our relationship with water goes beyond mere cleansing. It’s a pleasurable experience that promotes mental and physical wellbeing.
Here are some of the bathing traditions from around the world:
Sauna – Finland
Sweat baths are a fundamental way of life in Finland, which is understandable given the country’s harsh winters.
Most people take a sauna at least once a week and traditional saunas used to be heated by wood stoves.
Onsen – Japan
The Japanese are renowned for their hygiene habits and the country’s thousands of natural hot springs, called onsen, led to its bathing customs.
One first cleanses off all dirt from the body with a soapy scrub before entering these hot baths.
Dukhan – Sudan
A tradition only for married women where they sit over a pit of acacia wood that emits steam while wrapped in blankets. It’s seen as a way to restore both beauty and health.
Banya – Russia
A traditional public bathing house that at one time, was the only place the working class could go to for a clean-up. It has a steam room with multiple wooden benches one above the other where one either lies down or sits. After the warming up, one takes a plunge in a pool of cold water.
THE BANGSAR BATH HOUSE
THE hustle and bustle of Bangsar Village II is left far behind as soon as I push open a pair of carved, cedar wood doors at Hammam Bangsar.
Inside is a cool and inviting tiled courtyard with blue and red walls and painted pillars.
Wood framed mirrors dot the walls and traditional Moroccan lamps give out a soft, dim light while the soothing sound of running water comes from a fountain in the centre of the courtyard.
I feel like I’ve hopped into the pages of the Arabian Nights.
A therapist approaches and I change before starting my bath treatment.
She leads me into a dimly lit “warm room” that resembles a large tiled bathroom.
I immediately feel heat emanating from the walls, not in an overpowering way like a sauna but in a very mild and pleasant manner.
THE ANCIENT RITUAL
Water is pouring from a running tap into a deep container.
I am told to sit on one of the fully tiled slabs in the bathroom. I immediately feel a warmth emanating from the tiles.
The therapist then uses a dipper to pour water all over me, repeatedly.
The water is pleasantly warm and feels very comfortable and soothing.
She does a thorough wash several times before asking me to stretch out and lie face down on the slab.
I struggle a little to position myself on the slippery surface but it does feel good to lie fully stretched on the warm tiles.
She then proceeds to apply a special black soap all over my body. It doesn’t have any scent or foam but surprisingly, feels good on the skin.
I am told to lie down for ten minutes to allow the soap to do its work.
Another customer enters the bathing room at this point. Although it’s a woman, I become very self-conscious given that I’m only wearing disposable underwear. Communal bathing is something I have yet to get used to.
Just as I am about to close my eyes and relax, the therapist returns to start my full body scrub. She puts on a special glove to do the job which has just the right texture needed to exfoliate without being too harsh on the skin.
I immediately notice tiny dark specks all over the slab where I’m lying and she informs me that these are impurities being removed from my skin.
I’m taken aback at how much there is but she reassures me that it’s perfectly normal. It’s just the black soap doing its job and my skin feels super smooth.
The scrub is followed by another round of rinsing to completely cleanse the body before I dry off and put on a robe and am led to the cool courtyard to enjoy some tea and an almond pastry.
Once I’m done with the refreshments, it’s time to head to the massage room.
The massage uses argan oil which has a non-sticky texture and during the entire session, the masseuse pays particular attention to the soles of my feet, toes and the muscles on the lower back and neck.
It’s both intensive and soothing at the same time. When she finally finishes, she has to wake me up.
It’s the kind of therapeutic experience that one remembers for a long time. Is it any wonder the hammam hasn’t lost its place in history?