The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 6, 2003
Time Off

Smelling sahibs learnt to bathe in India
Manohar Malgonkar

THE first Englishmen who came to India as servants of the East India Company were bewildered by many of our customs. Many of them commented on, in their letters home, the habit, among certain classes of the Hindus, of taking a daily bath. What they found most peculiar was that both the men and the women did so without taking off the dhotis or saris they were wearing. They, as it were, bathed with their clothes on. How could they? O.K., a bath was a religious requirement. Why not take off one’s clothes while taking it?

There was a simple explanation. There were no such things as bathrooms, where, just by shutting a door, you could be alone. As a rule, the family place for the daily bath was just a sectioned off part of the rear-most room of a house. It was separated from the rest of the room by a low partition rarely more than knee-high, so as to prevent the water from the bath splashing the rest of the room. Whoever was taking a bath was therefore in full view of those who might be using the rest of the room. That was why they kept their dhotis and saris on even as they were pouring water over their bodies.


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What I, for one, was curious to know was how the sahibs took baths in their own land. Did they have separate bathrooms even in the 17th century? Or did they and their womenfolk, take off all their clothes for bathing even when they knew they could be seen by others?

The answer was not easy to find. For one thing, not many Indians had visited England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and those that had, had not recorded their impressions about such things as the bathing facilities in the houses they lived in. At least, I had not come across any such account. Personal hygiene seemed to be a subject that was taboo.

Then I remembered that, among the rarely-taken-out books in my study, there was a boxed set of a four-volume collection called illustrated English Social History, with the text written by an eminent historian, G.M. Trevelyan. It is quite a formidable assemblage of nearly 1500 pages, profusely illustrated.

The index to the first volume did not so much as contain the word bath, but this was understandable since the volume was devoted to describing life in England in the middle ages. But the 2nd volume, which begins with the Elizabethan Age, had it, written Bath, with a capital B. There were two references, but both, I discovered, referred to the town called Bath, and not to a bath meaning body-wash.

That still left two full volumes for me to look up. But again, the few times that the word bath is mentioned, it referred to the town. Then I embarked on a random check of the illustrations. Surely, I thought, somewhere I will find a picture of an Englishman, or his wife, taking a bath?

Not a sign!

It took some time, but finally it sank in, that while, those early factory-hands of John Company in India may have been somewhat scandalised by the fact that Hindu men and women of good families should not mind taking their baths in full view of others, what they found even more strange was that they should be washing their bodies at all.

If there are no historical records to support this view, there is logic. After all, to the British, the process of washing the body entailed lying prone in a tub half full of hot water. And how many houses in pre-Industrial England could have had metal containers large enough to accommodate grown men and women, and, even more, the facilities to heat up enough water?

The conclusion was inescapable. For most Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries, a bath must have been a rare experience indeed, affordable to the very rich, who perhaps took baths when they felt particularly obnoxious, what with their zest for vigorous exercise, such as workouts in the boxing ring or rowing or riding at the gallop over the countryside. What a sensual pleasure it must have been to lie soaking in a tub full of scalding hot water? But such indulgences were possible only during the few weeks of what the English call their summer. For the rest of the year, the water in the tub could not have remained hot for more than a couple of minutes, and from November through February must have gone icy cold as soon as it was poured in. Brrrrr!

Then again, even those who thus bathed their bodies a few times every summer seem to have been careful to, as it were, keep their heads above water. In other words, a bath did not also involve a hair-wash. Otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they should have found it necessary to coin—or adopt—a special word to describe the process of bathing hair: shampoo, which, ‘Hobson Jobson’ tells us is derived from the Hindi word, champi, for ‘massage’. Why a word which normally described the process of muscle-kneading should have been picked on to explain a head-wash, is not at all convincing. It seems that the Company’s servants used to send for their barbers every now and then to massage their heads with oil and then rinse off the hair with soap and water. So the head-champi, became ‘shampoo’.

A bit contrived, and not easy to believe. But the point here is not the origins of the word ‘shampoo’ so much as the fact that, it was introduced to the language by the servants of the company who had returned to England and continued their strange habits of having their heads washed periodically.

Which may explain why Trevelyans’s English Social History does not so much as mention the word ‘bath’. In the pre-industrial age it was, at best, an eccentricity indulged in by exercise-freaks in the summer months, and a head-bath was even rarer. Perhaps it didn’t matter all that much in the colder countries.

But, out in the tropics they must have gone about smelling quite a bit. In fact, the Chinese, when they first encountered the White man described him as "the smelly one".

These were inferences, not conclusions based on hard evidence. No matter how well-reasoned, they lacked the bracing of the written word. There were clues in contemporary accounts by Englishmen to support the theory that baths as well as shampoos were introduced to England by the ex-India hands of John Company, and that the body-wash preceded hair-wash by perhaps half a century. Yet, doubts remained.

Then, early this year, 2003, I began to read a book White Mughals by William Dalrymple, which a kind relative had given as a New Year gift. It is a product of formidable scholarship combined with years of painstaking research a rich plum-pudding of a book crammed with references and footnotes like some Ph.D. thesis, yet agreeably readable. I became totally absorbed in it and ‘Eureka!’ — there it was, in black and white. Just the right bracing to bear out my deductions that bath the both and the shampoo in England were Indian imports. I quote:

"Indian women, for example, introduced British men in the delights of regular bathing." And again:

"Those who had returned home and continued to bathe and shampoo themselves on a regular basis found themselves scoffed at as ‘effeminate’."