Friday, July 20, 2007

Traditional Baby Baths in India: A Community Affair

Lady N had the largest kumkum in the brightest shade of red I had ever seen on any one's forehead. It was at least one and a half times the size of a 50 paisa coin. Her heavily oiled hair was always combed back severely in a bun at the back of her head. Her sari, almost always some shade of green, was draped in the nine-yard style, with no petticoat and the folds going front to back between her calves, pant-style. Her eyes were heavily lined with kaadige (kaajal). Huge diamond studs adorned ears and nose. Her hands and legs were soft and wrinkly, the soles of her feet cracked from walking barefoot.

To me, Lady N was larger than life.

A dear friend of my maternal grandmother, Lady N was probably well into her sixties when I first met her as a five year-old. She had the courage and the confidence to do what even my grandmother, a lady of formidable capabilities herself, would not do. She bathed newborn babies.

This was not uncommon in most households - one or two ladies in the community would help out families with newborns with the bathing. Even today this practice is quite prevalent, particularly in the rural areas.

My earliest memory is of Lady N arriving every day in the middle of the morning at my grandmother's house in Mysore to bathe my new baby brother and then my cousins. She would come with a small cloth bag in her hand containing a bottle with a special blend of four oils which she would use to massage the baby, and a soft cotton saree which she would change into before handling the baby. Prior to her arrival, my grandmother would have the rest of the paraphernalia ready - hot (and I mean hot) water, corn flour, baby powder, powdered saambhrani, some coal, a small, round wicker basket and kaadige, a small spot of which would go on the baby's cheek and forehead to "ward off the evil eye".

After thoroughly massaging the baby for about half an hour (by which time the baby would either be bawling or getting ready to fall into a state of stupor depending on your luck), he would be taken to the smoky, steamy, slightly aromatic bathroom off of the kitchen in the back of the house.

The bathroom, made entirely of stone, brick and cement, was huge by today's standards. At the top left corner of the bathroom was a square protrusion from the wall made of concrete, about five feet by five feet. It contained a huge metal bowl within it which would be filled with water and heated from the bottom by a wood-burning fire. At the top right corner was a section of the bathroom lower than the rest by about two feet with a stone floor reserved for bathing.

Lady N would sit on this stone floor with her back to the wall and her legs stretched out together in front of her and receive the baby from my grandmother. The baby would go face down, head facing Lady N's feet and Lady N would start pouring water over the baby's body. With sure arms, Lady N would wash off the oil with a mixture of the corn flour and water, flipping the baby deftly from his front on to his back. Torso first, then arms and legs, then the face and finally the head.

Washing the hair is always the tricky part, especially with a newborn because, obviously, the neck is not strong yet and needs to be supported at all times. With her palm elongated to form a visor and the forehead secured in the crook of her palm between her thumb and forefinger of her right hand, Lady N would pour water on the baby's head with the left. One hand supporting, one hand scrubbing and washing. As a final act, Lady N would scoop up a container full of water, move her arms around in a circular motion in front of the baby three times and pour the water on to the bathroom floor, again to ward off the evil eye.

The actual bath only lasts a few minutes and the baby would then be handed over to my grandmother to be towelled off. Lady N would change back into her dry clothes in the meantime and would settle down on the floor of the "hall", one of the main rooms of the house to dry the baby's body and hair with the saambhrani.

Saambhrani is a fragrant material which when burnt on coal gives off aromatic smoke. The wicker basket would go over a plate of burning coal with the saambhrani sprinkled on top. The baby would be held with both arms over the basket and slowly moved back and forth. The warm smoke would swirl around the baby, warming the baby's body and hair and drying up any remaining pockets of dampness that the towel had left untouched.

Then, voilĂ ! A clean, fragrant, hopefully extremely sleepy baby would be handed off to the mother.

Many years later, my mother came to the US when Big N was born. All the baby books showed pictures of babies being bathed in the kitchen sink. In the kitchen sink! Having come from a culture where there were at least three people hovering over the baby during bath-time, what a let down that was for my mother.

But she rose to the occasion. Never having bathed a newborn before, she swallowed all her fears and trepidations and stepped into a super smooth jacuzzi to bathe her first grandchild. Step by step, she tried to recall Lady N's motions, deriving comfort from her confidence although Lady N was long dead by then. It was heartbreaking and inspiring to see my mother trying so hard to learn something so totally new in such a stressful situation. By the end of the first week, she was actually good at it.

She had carried dhoop sticks (not the incense sticks - these were thick and about a forefinger long), the new-fangled substitute for saambhrani, with her all the way from India, but there was no sitting in the "hall" or in any other room in the house. There were smoke alarms to consider. So off we went into the garage, the poor baby! It was too cold to carry him out with no clothes on, so it was only his hair that got the dhoop treatment.

These days, with no grandmothers in sight, these are the implements I resort to to give Little N a bath:

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A reclining bathing seat made entirely of plastic. A far cry from a grandmother's lap, for sure.

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A mug with a soft rubbery edge that wraps around the forehead so all the water falls back on the baby's head and not over her face. It doesn't work very well, actually. The baby's head needs to be tipped back and held there, which is uncomfortable for her neck, I feel. It might work better on older children.

The only feature of Lady N's bath ritual that is left standing is the mug full of water circulated three times in front of Little N's face and poured down the drain. It's not much but it's comforting enough.


Anusha said...

omg!! thank you for that elaborate description...newborn baths are a ritual by itself! I have very fond memories of watching my grandma bathe the littlest of cousins...and your post brought them all back :)
-first time commenting here, I couldn't resist delurking!

Terri the terrific said...

Does this ritual happen everyday? What a wonderful way to catch up on village gossip!

By the way, that's one of the cleanest bathrooms I've seen, with not one strand of hair on the floor. A mother bird can comfortably line her nest with the hair from our bathroom floor.

Anonymous said...

Yes, these bather nannies were simply amazing. But you cant find them anymore even in India. Just watching them give the child the massage makes you long for one yourself.

Anonymous said...

hi sujatha! what a lovely description!

i had my 1st baby in india. had a maalishwali come everyday - she did pretty much all that you described except that the saambraani was done just once a week. she massaged me too. both baby and i used to lseep for hours after the massage/bath.

with the 2nd baby abroad, no such luck!

Unknown said...

Hi Sujatha,
I read ur blogs when ever i have time.
This time i couldn't help leaving a comment about the bathing ritual.My older daughter was born in India(South) and we used to have a lady come and do all those things you have explained and then we moved to Sydney,Australia and my mum came over for my second ones delivery and she tired everything she can in the small bathroom here.She was here only for a month and as soon as she left, we had to put her in the baby bath.
But everything came back flooding to me, even though i has been 16 yrs.
Very nice-------

Shobha said...

Hi,I share your thoughts on this mug :) I thought it would help washing Ab's hair and he wouldn't wail as much but it doesn't work with him yet!
Btw,I've tagged you, so do get to it when you have the time!

DesiGirl said...

aww that was a good flshback, Suj! Washing Pratik's hair was a bit of a hassle, I have to admit. I wud have welcomed the mug contraption!!

bird's eye view said...

Hi Sujatha,

I'm a fellow blogger from Mysore and I can remember the wonderful smell of saambhraani from my childhood, when we dried our hair over a kenda.

My grandmother came to Gurgaon when my son was born, and between her and my mom, they bathed him in the same traditional way, apart from having a geyser for hot water instead of a 'hande', and when I started bathing him or my daughter who was born last year, I used the same face-down method. I find it works very wekk and it's easier to kaap hold of the baby. I only shifted them to bathing chairs when they were over 3 months old and could hold their heads up.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read about the baby bath. When my babies were born in the US, i learnt this style from my mother-in-law (including the face down for hair wash). The only tough thing was to get up from the bath tub with the baby. It is much easier if someone gets the baby from the bath person before they get up from the tub. For my second one, my first one used to stand outside the tub and pour water gently on her back. They definitely fall asleep after this wonderful bath.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Kodi's mom, thanks for reading my blog and delurking. :) It was a pleasure to write this, a nice trip down memory lane. :))

Terri, yes, every day, but as enfoured said below, the head bath part might have been only once a week. And the bathroom is not really as clean as you think. The camera might have been out of focus a little bit. :)

Lakshmi, the lady that was helping me around the house had these bather nannies for her grandchild. So they are still around, but am sure you won't find them in the new areas. You have to really go to the old areas of the city where people have been living in the same houses for generations.

Enfoured, I'm glad we at least have the memories. Just imagine the next generation of kids might not have a clue what any of this is all about.

Sridevi, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your experiences and for reading my blog. That's us, right there, straddling a bathtub and two cultures.

SS, there, I thought so! Those darned pictures on the products make it all look so easy and useful. Bah!

Now I'm off to see what the tag is all about.

DG, thanks. There's also a visor which my local baby shop is out of. But I used it on Big N and it seemed to work all right.

BEV, I tried the face down method too until little N was a few months old and it worked fine. When you are in India all the traditional methods seem easy, but not now. I fall back on the bathrub. :( Thanks for commenting.

Shree, yes, getting out of the tub is a royal pain and a little bit dangerous too because it is slippery. But so far, so good. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Sizzlingtree said...

Sujatha, I have been reading your blogs for a while and I always come away with things I had forgotten about. Reading this post reminded me of the time my younger brother would get bathed in the same way. There is nothing like hot water snaana from a huge copper pot!!

Anonymous said...

God, this brought back memories. In our house my grandmother did it herself - a fact that boggled my mind when i heard of it because my grandma just wasnt that kind of lady, you know? but yeah, there'd be the ayah, my grandmother, the mother of the baby, my great aunt, and anybody else who wanted to see a baby get bathed.

and sampraani! (thats how i spell it coz i dont know any better) you're like the only person in forever who even knows what that stuff is! it was such a staple of our lives and now i dont even know where you can buy it. it's probably toxic or something. but i still miss it. it kicks incense's ass!

Tharini said...

Ahhh yes!!! A divine experience. wish I remembered how it had felt for me when I was a baby!

We tried to follow the spirit of this tradition when Sathya was born too....did a post on it sometime back...

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sizzling tree, the other thing I miss is the stone floors - they were so good for the feet. Now we need to have special implements to scrub dead skin off our soles and they don't work half as well as the stone.

Amrita, LOL about sambhraani being toxic! It probably was. :)

Tharini, thanks for the link. Will read. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha, Lovely post! My mother tried doing most of this for my daughter too. And I would stand by the bathroom door freaking out about the "HOT" water. She would just insist it was good for the baby.
Your post broght back lovely memories of my grandma bathing my little cousins, and we older ones standing around to revieve a warm, and nice smelling baby to rock to sleep in the cradle.

Sujatha Bagal said...

K, thank you very much for reading and for sharing your experience. It's amazing how so many of us seem to have similar memories.

Anonymous said...


"I wud have welcomed the mug contraption!! "

i was thinking of you - er, your blog - when i scrolled to this comment; guess what word contraption morphed into as i was scrolling [think pill post]? ;-)

i absolutely love the smell of saambhraani. we still have some sticks from the stack that mother-in-law brought with her a couple of years ago, and i light one occasionally.

- s.b.

Chitra said...

Taavu KannaDadavaraa? :-)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Chitra, howdhu, naavu kannadadavare. Nammuru mysooru, nimmooru? :)))

S.B. totally missed your comment here. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Read this post from your latest post on your grandmother, and like everyone else, it brought back so many memories! I had my children here in the US, but my mother and I did most of the same steps, right down to the dhoop. BTW, here in TX, our smoke detector was fine with the dhoop - didn't let out a squeak! We did it in the kitchen, with the exhaust on, and out exhaust vents out, so maybe that helped.

I took the kids back for their first birthdays, and for the time we were in India, had someone come home to massage the babies (and me!) and bathe them - actually foudn people very easily in Bombay, B'lore and Trichy (the three cities we were in)..


Sujatha Bagal said...

@M, if it's one thing I miss about India other than my family, it was definitely those massages! Sigh!

Wendy said...

This is wonderful. I found you from a link at another post about Bhagabai (I can't remember the nice lady's name who was writing about her).

I love all these traditions. I love being American, but what I don't like is that we're a very "young" country and don't have beautiful traditions like you do in India. There are so many wonderful things we miss out on that older cultures have.

I might have to start borrowing! :D

Sujatha Bagal said...

Wendy, thank you for reading and for your lovely comment!

You know, the majority of us in America come from somewhere else, some other place that is old, old. I happen to come from India, but countries of Europe, South America, Africa, they all have traditions. So perhaps you could look into the country of your ancerstors' origin and see what traditions they had and try to follow that. For me that's a great way to keep us and our kids connected to their roots.