(see extensive photo gallery – and banya-related music! – at end of post)
When I first envision a banya, it looks something like this.
Humble. Weathered. Even ramshackle.
Traditional banyas often look like this because they have stood for years. Often they were built during periods of deficits in materials, and not by carpenters.
I like banyas like this for the same reason I like things that are made by hand. It is imperfect. It has character. Moreover, if it is still standing, it is still being used – which means it probably yields good steam.
This banya reflects a certain energy. It has dukh, or spirit.
While this banya looks old, it is not among the oldest. This one has a chimney – the biggest, and pretty much only, advancement in banya design – whereas the earliest banyas, the black banyas, do not.
Banyas with chimneys are known as white banyas, but no one really ever calls them that. They’re just called banyas.
This banya is old enough that it is easy for me to envision the steam room being used by holistic healers, or znakhari (literally “ones who know”), who practice folk medicine with war chests of 77 or 99 different herbs, roots and berries gathered at certain times of day, at certain times of year.
I can picture in this banya young girls gathered, at midnight, to try to divine their futures – the face of the man they will marry, the direction from which he will come. This banya reminds me of scenes of fortune telling, and divination, depicted in War and Peace, by Tolstoy, and Yevgeny Onegin, by Pushkin.
A village banya, at midnight, is the most magical place in all of Russia.
I even can picture this banya as a sort of crucible for the literal birth of families. Women gave birth in banyas for centuries. In fact, historically the banya has served as the locus of all major transitions in human life:
- people were born here
- couples steamed here separately (with friends and relatives) prior to their wedding days, and together the next day, as newlyweds
- the deceased were anointed here prior to burial
I can more easily imagine a banya like this inhabited by the malicious sprite, the bannik, the most powerful of the country’s legion of domestic goblins.
As such, banyas are seen to straddle the natural and unnatural worlds.
This banya makes me recall the best steams I have experienced while traveling throughout Russia. I like to think of meeting its owners somewhere, in a town, and being invited to steam in their banya, this banya, in the country.
Between steams we might walk outside and douse ourselves with water from a basin, or wade into a nearby creek, or river, or lake, to cool. In winter, we might even jump through a hole cut into ice with a handsaw.
A banya like this embodies much of Russia’s ancient bath culture.
This song, White Banya, by Vladimir Vystotsky, uses the banya as a metaphor for Stalinist times.