How the world took a fancy to bath

People in many parts of the world shun bath even as modern medicine insists on it daily for hygiene and good health.

Indians exhibit an emotional fervour for bath, but it is not so with other countries and people. For the Hindus water is a cleansing agent and is divine. Water like fire ('agni'), purifies everything and so for every religious ceremony water occupies a predominant place. A dip in the holy water of the Ganges is believed to bring salvation ('moksha').

However, people in many parts of the world shun bath even as modern medicine insists on it daily for hygiene and good health. One reason for this may be the scarcity of water. People dwelling in the desert or in the arid areas bathe occasionally, but never as frequently as we do. In Europe and other civilised countries too bath is not viewed as Asians or Indians deem it.

Bath has become popular even among cultures where it was not significant as a routine. The discovery of microbes has put a premium on cleanliness and bath-lovers of today indulge in body wash for health purpose.

Bath was a rarity in Old Europe and dirt-loving germs found the human bodies as a good host to replicate. In 'The Great Mortality', John Kelley talks about the filthy condition of the medieval cities and countrysides.

“The medieval body was in as shocking a state as the medieval street. Edward III scandalised London when he bathed three times in as many months," it is said.

Friar Albert, a monk in Boccaccio's 'Decameron', displays a more typical attitude toward personal hygiene. “I shall do something today that I have not done for a very long time,” the friar announces cheerfully. “I shall undress myself.” When the assassinated Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was stripped naked an English chronicler reports that Vermin “boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron” from his body.

Early medieval Europeans washed or changed their clothes only once or twice a year. Undressing and changing clothes were not frequent. Thus we have a phrase in the fourteenth century English-French, “Hi, the fleas bite me so!”

The early Christians never took bath because they were ascetics and believed that it was sinful to see the naked bodies of their own and other people's. “Girls should wash less” was the common prescription. When they were allowed to bath on every alternate Saturday, they were to do it in a chemise” (undergarment) descending well below the knees.

The men and women of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were also as dirty as their barbarous ancestors.

But the Greeks, who worshiped the body, considered cleanliness as a cardinal virtue. The Romans had big public baths which looked like temples. Their baths were very big as to be converted at a later time to Christian churches. For them bath was luxury, a soothing act. They had seating and drying rooms and big halls attached to the bathrooms. The decay of the great Roman baths was as much due to the attack of Barbarians as to Christian ascetic objections. But the crusaders brought with them the oriental vapour bath, which for a time became popular in Europe. The fall of the ascetic tradition, the breakdown of moral lessons like the attitude to nakedness and modesty, and the importance of medicine resulted in the habit of taking frequent baths.

Now people not only take baths of various kinds, but they are also developing the habit of wearing less and less clothes!