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Visiting the modern Hammam in Ankara and lstanbul
NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat
A Boisterous Bath in Leningrad
SAUNA & HEALTH
NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
The Temescal Today
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
When I arrived in Mexico I wondered if the temescal had been replaced by modern tubs and showers. Mexico is rapidly changing and in recent years has made great efforts to lift its people from their poverty level. While most modern societies regard the sweat bath, in its original form, as a vestigeof the past, the temescal has changed little since the Conquest. This is not through efforts to preserve tradition but because many Indian tribes throughout Mexico remain lightly touched by modern amenities.
I visited several temescals in central Mexico. They are common from Mexico City to Guatemala, within the ancient boundaries of Mayan rule. There are no sweat houses between Mexico City and the United States border perhaps because that region is so poor and barren that peoples outside the Mayan influence never developed a ceremonial culture. South of Guatemala into South America I found scarce mention of any type of sweat house.
Although temescals come in different shapes, all retain certain features found in the ruins of original Mayan sweat houses. They can be round or rectangular and built from wood with thatched roofs or mortared walls. As with the Mayan ancestor, there is always a sunken passage or drain belowfloor level. The fire room is always separate from the steam room and between these two chambers is an irregular opening where porous rocks arepiled. The steam room usually has no ventilation. Smoke from the firechamber exits through the passageway.
Although the original Mayans must have practiced specific rites duringtheir baths, they were so thoroughly discouraged by Spanish missionaries,their descendants attached little religious significance to the temescal. It was regarded as a place to clean the body and provide treatment forpersons suffering from rheumatism, skin ailments and certain diseases.
Oscar Lewis lived in Tepoztlan, a village 60 miles south of Mexico City, and devoted a section of his book, Life in a Mexican Village, (1951) to the temescal.
"The temescal, which is still widely used even by those women who go to doctors, is usually given eight days, after delivery, though some midwives give it after fifteen days. Most women do not take their first temescal until after bleeding has stopped. Before the temescal, the mother, midwife, and other women of the house may also bathe and eat clemole--a dish made of chicken or beef, with the bone cooked in washed, ground chile pasilla--and a piece of epazote. The mother eats only the meat, for the chile sauce is 'cold' and bad for her.
"She eats at this time to give her strength for the ordeal of the temescal, for some women faint or vomit from the extreme heat. Unmarried mothers sometimes do not use the temescal but bathe at home after twenty days in bed. A few younger women do not like the heat of the temescal and bathe in warm water in which some rosemary has been boiled. On the day of the temescal, the midwife, for the first and only time, must limit her diet to what the mother eats. A fire is made in the temescal, and a large can of hot water is placed there. Leaves of white sapote are placed on the floor, and a small bundle of leaves are tied together to form a brush.
The mother is well wrapped and is tradionally carried to the temescal on the back of her husband. Although this is still done by many, the woman isnow often carried on a board by two men. Some men find it embarrassing tocarry their wives and hire someone to do it for them. Some of the youngerwomen walk to the temescal. The new baby is also taken to the temescal withthe mother and is briefly exposed to the steam, then carefully wrapped andtaken home. Many modern women disapprove of giving infants and smallchildren sweatbaths and believe that they cause navel hemorrhages and even death. A bunch of sapote leaves are placed between the mother's thighs tocover the genitals. Throughout the bath, the midwife is assisted by a female relative of the mother. The midwife rubs the mothers body with egg and alcohol, particularly on the face and back, for this mixture is thoughtto prevent pano.
"The mother then lies down on the leaves, and spoonfuls of water are thrown into the fire to make it steam. The midwife rubs the mother with the brush of leaves. After this she asks for the estropajo, which is a brush of ixtle in the form of a basket, containing a piece of soap. This basket may be made in the shape of an animal and is presented by the baby's godmother. Some women do not like to be washed with the estropajo because it is too harsh for their skins, and they use something else. The midwife washes the mother's entire body except for the genitals, which the mother washes herself. Warm water is thrown over her to wash off the soap, and she is dried. She is rebound and wrapped in a sheet and carried back to bed. When she leaves, the other women of the house, friends, and neighbors may take advantage of the hot temescal and bathe. These baths are taken by the mother every eight days for as long as she stays in bed. Almost everyone takes at least two temescales, and may take the traditional four."
In one village I found the temescal as popular as the sauna in Finland. You won't find San Bernadino Chalchiuapan on a tourist map. It is nestledbetween two mountains in the shadow of the majestic Popocatepetl at the end of a two-mile dirt road. Only two hours by bus east of Mexico City, it is still isolated from modernization. Donkey carts outnumber cars. The temescals I found here could have been those described by Clavigero centuries ago. And from the women I spoke to, the use of the temescal after childbirth was identical to Lewis' descriptions in Tepoztlan, hundreds of miles to the west.
It was Saturday, obviously bath day, when a friend and I trudged into thevillage. The smell of burning pine rose from their cooking stoves and the igloo-shaped temescals that sat in nearly every backyard. The mayor's aide, Francisco Montes Jimenez, became our obliging guide and explained how the temescal was used.
"First you build a fire in the back of the temescal and let it burn all day. For a bath as hot as good chile, you can let the fire burn for a couple of days, but it really only takes a few hours to heat the rocks and chamber to make them hot enough for bathing. Then you strip down naked and crawl in. You never close the entrance, never even cover it. The steam and heat stay trapped inside. The floor is raised and made of brick and covered with straw mats. Men and women can bathe together without clothes, if they are married of course, but usually women and children go first and the men follow".
I asked Jimenez if neighbors ever bathe together. "Oh yes," he said. "We take turns heating the baths. Last week my family and I went to the Gonzales'. Today, it is our turn."
As we strolled through the village, I noticed an ominous brew of herbs andwater boiling near a bath."Often, a temescal is taken on doctor's orders," Jimenez explained. "Usually he will prescribe a concoction of herbs, plants and other things to be splashed on the walls of the bath. It makes a healing vapor."
The villagers wash outside the temescal, sometimes flagging the vapor towards them from the doorway, before crawling inside. They usually bathe twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays, sitting comfortably in the steam chamber on soft straw mats.
I asked about the corn husks heaped around many of the baths. "The large ones are for tamales," Jimenez explained. "And the smaller ones are used inthe baths. You can either beat yourself with the husks--believe me, it feels good--or use them to cover your private parts when you walk about."
I would have liked to join a family in their temescal, but they were shy and I felt my presence on their streets was intrusion enough. It was a happy, healthy village and I hope it remains that way and its road never gets paved.