The bazaar at Isfahan, which is often cited to have the most classical architecture of all the bazaars in Iran, is comparatively less crowded. I roam around freely, until at one point the rasteh appear to be completely jammed with a crowd that is clearly headed for one particular shop. I elbow my way in. It’s a restaurant, which also flaunts an English signboard: Beriyani-haj-Mahmood Shafe at Establishment 1905!! The joy of arriving at a long sought destination runs through my heart. Beriyani!
Yes, it’s been a very long time. In India we have a food named Biriyani, and very early in my school days I had arrived at the profound realization that Nature-God must have created the human kind so that someday it would create Biriyani. My eternal quest for ‘the best’ Biriyani has led me through the bustling alleys of Nampally in Hyderabad, Chitpur Street in Kolkata, Gali Kababian in old Delhi, Baoli Gate food street in Delhi’s Nizamuddin, Kotowali Chowk Bazaar in Lucknow, and numerous nameless lanes in scores of other smaller towns. This quest also led me to chart-out and write a broad history of Biriyani. This in turn entailed a fascinating time-travel from the days of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Ramayana, the deliberations on vegetarianism in the Manu Samhita, Buddhism and Jainism, through Alexander’s forays into Samarkand, the south Indian Oon Soru around 200 CE, the arrival of the Turkic-Afghan Muhammad of Ghur, the Mughal kitchens of emperor Humayun and Shah Jahan, the lavish culinary tradition of the Nizams in Hyderabad and finally the Awadhi influence and its arrival in Kolkata, courtesy Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. In that endeavour I made a stunning discovery: the history of Biriyani is the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, as ancient and as diverse. Indeed if there is one thing that can claim to represent India symbolically it has to be the Biriyani. Somewhere during this research I learnt that the name Biriyani was probably derived from Beriyan, an Iranian delicacy which is essentially fried meat. Since then my existence has longed for the taste of Beriyan.
And here is a Beriyani, a shop that sells Beriyan, right in front of me, even though my pre-visit little research on Isfahan had not informed me of this particular Beriyani, which clearly has been around for more than a century. But I soon realize that it will take me hours to find a place in this restaurant. I just can’t wait that long. I take out my notes. Azam Beriyani, that’s the one, my notes inform me, which is Isfahan’s most famous Beriyani. The taxi driver recognises the name immediately. In half an hour I am sitting in a medium sized busy restaurant with Beriyan in front of me. Unlike our Biriyani, Beriyan is elementary food. Two chunks of ground fried meet, one larger than the other, on a fresh-baked bread, probably Sanagk, served with a large piece of white onion and a slice of lemon. The waves that run through my nostrils and taste buds before settling in my brain, quickly convinces me that this food must have been the mother of our Biriyani. The difference between the two chunks of ground meat is also unmistakable. And it is here that I also commit the terrible mistake, which I shall regret for the rest of my life: I forget to try to learn the recipe. Of all the Beriyan recipes that I have been able to locate on the net so far, none accounts for the difference of taste between the chunks of meat which came with Azam Beriyani’s Beriyan.
Besides Beriyan, I find another thing, or perhaps I should say another arrangement, in all Iranian bazaars. With this, though, I had a major encounter before: Hammam aka public bath. Some of these have been turned into museums, such as the Vakil Hammam of Shiraz or the Sheikh Bahai Hammam of Isfahan. Many are still functional.
I had heard of this unique arrangement of social gathering mostly from my friends who had visited such public baths in Europe. In brief, from as early as the 2nd millennium BCE to as late as the end of the 19th century, in cultures along the Mediterranean, the Ottoman empire, the Levant and even further down East it used to be a large chamber where all activities pertaining to cleansing the body used to be performed in elaborate measures: you got your nails clipped, hair dressed, body massaged along with of course a hot bath. Plus it used to be a chamber where the hoity toity gathered in closed groups, had tea or coffee, shared obscene jokes, reflected on the condition of the kingdom and, in the mysterious mist of the steam-room, hatched bloody intrigues in ominous whispers to murder the king. In India, however, for reasons I do not know, we have never had this particular kind of bathing congregation. Of course we had, and still have, our common baths, but ranging from the Great Bath of Harappa to the palm-tree-lined small village-ponds where human beings and ducks bathe together in Bengal, all across the Indian subcontinent it has always been an open affair and for the masses. The Indian elite have always washed themselves, and their linen, in private.
In modern times this culture has survived in much of the same region as famed Turkish Baths. A friend settled in Germany once described to me the great pleasure of bathing in unisex Turkish Baths completely naked. I saluted her free spirit and promptly deleted from my mental list of must-activities, the “visit to a Turkish bath” as I boarded the Turkish Airlines flight from Athens to Istanbul. Instead I absolutely made sure of not uttering the word Hamam during my stay at comrade Hakan Gulsven’s lovely home for a week or so, even though it is said that a trip to Istanbul is only half done without a visit to a Hamam. But providence had other calculations.
The lightning struck on a perfectly sunny morning. I had just had a hearty breakfast of lotus stems that Hakan’s beautiful wife Ayca Ilmaz had kindly cooked for me, when the following conversation ensued:
“Nil,” said Ayca, “I didn’t see you go to a hamam any of these days?”
“Ha-ha!” I replied, “This lightly fried lotus stem is excellent. What do you call them in Turkish?”
“Enginar. Let me fix a bath for you. We have one of Istanbul’s most famous baths just a few blocks away. You want to go today?”
“Ha-ha, ha-ha. Let me host you a dinner this evening. Is there a good Turkish cuisine restaurant close by?”
“Cinili Hamam. Very old. Very Good.”
“Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha. I hear you people eat a lot of fish also, like us Bengalis, right?”
“Yes. If you go a little late in the afternoon, there won’t be much of a crowd.”
Clearly my increasing number of Ha-has was not helping. So I decided to fire straight, “Impossible.”
“Why?” Ayca looked innocence personified.
Throwing all my inhibitions to the wind, which had turned into a veritable storm, raging over me for the past few minutes, I came clean, “It’s impossible for me to be nude in front of other people.”
It was Ayca’s turn to be blown. She looked completely zapped, “Why do you have to be nude?”
“Of course not.”
“But there will be women around. It’s unisex right?”
“No dear. You guys have a totally separate chamber.”
A bath at a hamam. A new horizon of possibilities opened up before me. But there was still a problem. No one in the said hamam apparently spoke a word of English. Ayca took charge. She called up the hamam and informed the manager that a person from Hind would be arriving around 2:00 p.m., who couldn’t speak a word Turkish, but he wished to have a full course bath. Standing by her side, as she spoke on the phone, I also kept telling her, “And tell him that the person will have his bath wearing shorts.” I didn’t understand though whether this crucial piece of information was passed on.
“Historical Turkish Bath for Men. 1640. Cinili Hammami,” Said the signboard stuck at the gate of a large brownish building with domes. Clearly the facility had a separate gate for women bathers.
This bath was built by one of the most powerful women in the history of the Ottoman Empire, Kosem Sultana, the wife of emperor Sultan Ahmet I, some four centuries ago. The manager ostensibly had been waiting for me. I paid the requisite charges. Around 40 Turkish Lira, which would be about 800 INR. I was led into a corridor lined with small cubicles with glinting polished wooden doors on both sides. I was pointed to one of them. There was a small cupboard and a narrow small bed, on which was a stack of folded milk-white thin soft Turkish towels and on the floor a pair of sandals. The bed must be for a moment of rest before the elaborate exercise, I assumed. I changed into my Bermuda shorts. Wrapped around my waist a further layer of a towel. Wore the sandals and got out of the room.
Next I was led to a huge hall. It again had small cubicles with wooden benches. I sit. Ouch! My butt felt the heat. It was a sauna chamber. The guy who had led me to the hall disappeared. There wasn’t another soul around. A chill ran down my spine. Four hundred years! What people might have come and gone into this chamber since. And there I was, a guy from one of the poorest districts in far off Hind, sweating myself off! What Kosem Sultana might have thought of that! I could almost see the shock on her face. I started sweating profusely. And soon the real fun began.
Just as I started wondering what next, a giant of a man with a hint of towel around his loins appeared at the door of the cubicle and nodded me out. With much trepidation I stepped out. I was led to yet another hall. Right at the centre of it was a large marble slab platform. My towel was taken away as I was asked to sit on it. I prepared myself to defend my honour: the towel it shall be, and no more, I muttered to myself. But the battle didn’t ensue. Instead I was soaked in ice cold water. Then a round of warm water. More cold water. Finally the real cleansing began. I was indicated to sit, crouch and lie down in more postures that Vatsayana could have ever imagined: right, left, half bent, on my belly, flat on my back… The rubbing went on and on with a huge rectangular brown cake that had no odour. The gentleman clearly was fighting a personal battle with grime, and he was fighting it with vengeance. He wouldn’t let go of my limbs till the goal was reached. He was pulling them, twisting them, squeezing them, and beating them relentlessly. Every time my spondylosis ridden spine forced me to cry out, “Can we call it a day now?”, what I heard in reply was perhaps what Jim Corbett had in mind when describing the sound made by tigers resenting human proximity: an angry grunt. Realizing the futility of such requests I surrendered, like the clichéd canoe caught in a raging maelstrom. I do not remember how long this battle continued, but when he gave me a final cold shower and handed back the large towel that he had confiscated, his eyes clearly read, “You piece of shit! Finally I’ve been able to cleanse you!” Even today in cold winter nights when pain flashes across my shoulders I remember those triumphant eyes!
Therefore, while loitering around Tehran Bazaar when Sayad asks if I am interested in a hammam bath, I utter a simple “No”, but the look I gave him must have read, “How could you make me such a shocking indecent proposal?”
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra