The sulphur baths of the Georgian capital are said to leave the body miraculously cured
History hangs heavy in almost every corner of Georgia. It is no different in Abanotubani in Old Tbilisi, a region peppered with bathhouses more than two centuries old. Legend has it that the city was founded by King Vakhtang Gorgasali, the ruler of Iberia (5-6th century), after he went hunting with a falcon. The falcon caught a pheasant near a sulphur water spring of the region but both birds fell into it and perished. The king realised that the water had special powers, and decided to build his capital in this region. He named it Tbilisi — ‘Tbili’ in Georgian means warm. The capital sits atop thermal springs containing sulphur water heated to 40-50 degrees Celsius. The water is believed to have curative properties. Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin is said to have felt “strong enough to lift a mountain” after soaking in these waters.
I am walking on the cobbled streets of Old Tbilisi, staring straight at an equestrian statue of King Vakhtang overlooking the River Mtkvari. Combing the lanes, I spot the Royal Bath House — built in 1774. A neon signboard and an iron filigreed glass door lead me in, and, in a minute, the prickly odour of rotten eggs assails my nostrils. Acho Gagajanova, the red-haired manager with keen kohl-rimmed eyes, ushers me to a wooden desk that serves as the reception. My reservation is confirmed, and she leads me through the arched doorways into a lobby with a vaulted ceiling that resembles a cathedral, with mosaic arches and Prussian blue walls. A painting of the last king of Georgia, Erekle II, during whose reign the sulphur baths were built, hangs on a wall. In the lobby stands a statue of a man with a bucket, readying himself for a bath. I pick up a few bottles of drinking water from a wood-panelled bar to carry with me, as the baths are dehydrating.
The bath is a scene of frenetic activity. People walk in and out, some guzzling beer as they await their turn, while those stepping out of the bath appear content. The jarring sound of hair dryers is deafening at first but I soon get used to it.
Acho ushers me into a muggy, misty room. The smell of rotten eggs is pronounced now. The room is split into two sections: The first is a dry area with wooden chairs, slippers and towels neatly arranged on a rack. The second room, which is the bath, is separated by a glass door. The minute Acho opens it, an oppressive gust of steam hits me. I change into my swimwear and step into the bath. Though the baths are built along Persian traditions, they are quite modest and do not boast flying arches or cavernous ceilings. Instead, all we have is a tiled pool on one side and a limestone slab on the other. A running tap spouts hot sulphur water. Clouds of smoke swirl from the pool and fog the glass windows. The water seems scalding at first, but I soon get used to the temperature. Within minutes, my tired traveller’s muscles feel better. I soak in it for a while, after which a mild dizziness kicks in. I gulp down cold water and the uneasiness disappears.
After 20 minutes, I hear loud knocks on the door. A plump, matronly woman walks in with a coarse mitten and a silken pillow in hand. Without any introduction, she splashes water on me and scrubs me all over with the mitten. The scouring makes me wince, but I realise this is the best form of body polishing I have ever done. The masseur kneads my back and pummels my limbs with a vigour I have not experienced before. She empties buckets of hot sulphur water on me and slaps on the soap using the silken pillow. My skin feels soft, like that of a newborn. Before I leave, Acho offers me green tea and I promise her that I will be back again. After the bath, I may not have felt strong enough to “lift” a mountain like Pushkin, but it surely cured the niggling ache in my leg that had been bothering me. As I walk out into the cold, my body not only feels squeaky clean but also miraculously cured.