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Banya, the Russian Rite of Steam Bath
September 12, 2007 18:31

Banya is one of the most ancient traditions of the Russian people. Russian steam bath is a full-fledged philosophy, as well as invigorative pleasure compared to nothing and true relief for one’s soul.

Traditionally, Russian steam bath is a log hut with three rooms, namely entrance room (called predbannik), washing room and steam room (parilka). The peculiarity of the true Russian steam bath is comparatively not high temperature, from 45 to 60 degrees centigrade and high relative humidity, 90 to 100 percent, which, according to the modern studies, provides better vaporization and more penetrating heating.

Steam bath was popular among the Slavs as far back as the 5-6th cc already. Everyone, be it princes, noblemen or common folks, resorted to this hygienic invigorative delight. Apart from its practical purposes, banya played a great role in various rites. For example, it was considered necessary to go to banya before a wedding ceremony and the day after it, the visit being accompanied with a special ceremony.

Many foreign travelers wrote about the Russian banya. The German scholar Oleary who traveled in Muscovy and Persia in 1633—1639, wrote, that the Russians stuck to the custom of washing in a steam bath. “The Russians can bear unbearable heat, which makes them all red and frizzled so much that they cannot stay in the bathhouse any longer and rush naked outdoors, men and women alike, and pour themselves with cold water, or, in winter, wallow in snow, rub their body with it, as if it were soap, and then return to the sweating-room” – the German scholar accounted. He also mentioned, by the way, that the Russians disclosed the False Dmitry was a foreigner and imposter because he disliked steam baths.

What banya is made of

The outside walls of the Russian steam bath house are, as a rule, built of round logs or square beams. It is known that fir tree or pine tree make the best material for building a bathhouse. The special zest of Russian banya is in the traditional stone stove. Its construction is universal and allows not only heating through the bath, but also heating water and vaporizing the room with the help of water, splashed onto its hot stones. It is impossible to imagine a Russian banya without a proper stone stove.

Types of Russian banya

There are two major types of Russian banya: heated black (po-chornomu) and white (po-belomu). The 'black’ banya is the oldest invention, and less convenient than the ‘white’ one. It has no flue, and so the smoke goes out just through a whole in the ceiling and makes the walls black with soot. The ‘white’ banya is of a perfected construction, letting the smoke out through a flue and the stove heated from the entrance room.

The most exotic are, of course, the banyas right inside a big stone stove. The stove is heated, and so is water in big iron pots; afterwards the coals are shoveled into one corner of the stove, the ‘floor’ of the stove is covered with straw and banya is ready: you can get inside the stove and wash yourself, and even splash yourself carefully with a venik.

What is Venik?

From the days of hoary antiquity the Slavs whipped themselves and their fellows in banya with bunches of dried branches of birch, oak, maple, or other plants. Strangely enough, the barbarian custom remains popular till date, probably because nothing can be compared to its reviving effect. Flogging with venik (a bunch of leafy branches) is a peculiar massage, increasing blood circulation, sweating and metabolism and cleansing the whole organism. The ether oils in venik leaves improve the condition of skin and produce anti-ageing effect, the fact known from ancient times. As the folks used to say: “You do not grow old on that day, when you steam in banya”.

How to take it?

If you are now inspired enough to go to the Russian banya, keep in mind that the best precepts are gradation and moderation (though the natives will probably forget about the latter, as usual). If you are eager to get the unforgettable sensation of bathing in snow or ice-cold water after parilka, do not forget to heat yourself very well with venik before and after this feat of spirit.



Tags: Russian Traditions Banya Russian Steambath   

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