On a nondescript street in Bhopal’s old city, my taxi slows as I lean out to ask a tea stall owner whether there’s a hammam nearby. His forehead furrows with doubt. Two patrons sipping tea shrug.
Did I mishear my guide when he said that the Kamala Park area has a “popular” 300-year-old public bath? I decide to comb the lanes on foot, and am rewarded with a dusty sign proclaiming India’s only functional, 18th-century Turkish bath, the Qadimi Hammam. Passing a ruminating goat, I climb a flight of stairs into a modest structure.
Outside the hammam sits a posse of women, the masseuses. The 50-something Naseem aapa, with keen, kohl-rimmed eyes, introduces herself and ushers me into a small domed reception with walls the colour of egg yolk. Visitors leave their clothes and belongings here before entering the bathhouse.
Naseem tells me the hammam was built in the early 1700s, when the Gonds ruled the area. In the 1720s, the Mughal mercenary Dost Mohammad Khan took over the area and established the city of Bhopal and himself as Nawab. The hammam was eventually gifted to Hajjam Hammu Khalida, a trusted servant of the nawabs, and Naseem’s ancestor.
She leads me into a cool, misty passage. As she opens a metal door, a mildly oppressive gust of steam hits my body. I am instructed to lie down on the chamber’s limestone floor for 20 minutes.
Supine in the chamber, I watch clouds of steam furl towards a glass window in the domed ceiling. The hammam is modest compared to the cavernous ceilings and flying arches I’ve seen in sketches of Turkish baths elsewhere. I doubt I would have stepped in if my guide hadn’t recommended it.
Most visitors are regulars, like photographer Vijeta Shrivastava, who swears by its beauty treatments. “It looks dingy but it’s a local institution,” she had told me. “It isn’t in the best shape, but their traditional ingredients work really well for me. And it’s great value for money.”
On closer inspection, interesting architectural features of the hammam emerge. The steam chamber sits directly above a wood furnace. Two tanks on opposite sides of the room are filled with cool and hot water. Copper plates below the hot water tank conduct heat, and turn the water into vapour. Under the floor, hot water flows through copper pipes. The masseuses refer to the five vents in the dome overhead as the hammam’s naak (nose) and kaan (ears).
After 20 minutes, Naseem returns and, without preamble, splashes warm water on me. I chuckle, remembering a blissful temple elephant I once saw basking in the sun as her caretaker bathed her in a similarly brisk fashion. Naseem kneads and pummels my limbs with a vigour I’ve never experienced at urban spas. The oils and scrubs she uses are made from local spices, according to recipes followed by five generations of her family. Her robust strokes on my body make the chamber echo with ominous smacks. Then, Naseem scrubs my body raw with a pumice stone from Ajmer. Wincing at the dead skin peeling off, I turn to see another client smiling at me. We begin chatting, and I learn she is a mathematics teacher at a local school who comes here regularly to alleviate her back pain. Watching us chit-chat, Naseem tells us that hammams were traditionally significant spaces for people to gather and socialize.
Like most of the world’s hammams, Qadimi Hammam is built close to a mosque so locals can wash up before prayer. It’s time for the afternoon namaz, and I am lulled by the plaintive voice of the muezzin, rising and falling in time with Naseem’s expert, rhythmic strokes. Sinking deeper into this no-frills experience, I feel surprisingly, divinely indulged.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “The Hidden Hammam”.
Qadimi Hammam is in Bhopal’s Old City, 12 km/25 min southeast of the airport (Lane no.2, Kamla Park; 9303090998; open Nov-Mar, 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. for women, 6 p.m.-11 p.m. for men; massages from ₹400).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.