Banya (sauna)

Banya (sauna)
Depiction in the mid 1920s of a rural banya by Russian artist Boris Kustodiev: Russian Venus (armed with birch twigs)

Banya (Russian: баня [ˈbanjə]) in Russian can refer to any kind of steam bath, but usually to the Russian type of sauna. In Bulgarian, banya (баня) usually refers to a bath and bathing. In Serbian, banja (бања) is used exclusively for a mineral water spa, as, for example, in spa resort names such as Vrnjačka Banja and Sokobanja.



St Andrew's prophecy of Kiev depicted in Radzivill Chronicle.

The earliest description of the banya comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113.[1] According to the Chronicle, or as it was called by its authors, The Tale of Bygone Years, the Apostle Andrew visited the territories that were later to become Russia during his visit to the Greek colonies on the Black Sea. The belief was held that Andrew crossed through Russia from the mouth of the Dnieper River, passed the hills on which Kiev would later be founded, and went as far north as the ancient city of Novgorod.

Olga's Revenge a miniature illustration from the Primary Chronicle.

"Wondrous to relate," said he, "I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."[2]

Another mention of the banya is found in the same Chronicle in the story of Princess Olga's revenge for the murder of her husband, Prince Igor, by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader of the Drevlians had hopes of marrying the widow Olga and sent messengers to discuss the idea. "When the Drevlians arrived, Olga commanded that a bath should be made ready for them and said, 'Wash yourselves and come to me.' The bath-house was heated and the unsuspecting Drevlians entered and began to wash themselves. [Olga's] men closed the bath-house behind them and Olga gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians were all burned to death."[1]

Relatives of the Russian banya

The Roman therma

Main article -Thermae Ancient Romans had a cult of bathhouse. Greeting each other they said: "How is your sweating?"[3] In the bathhouse (sauna) they not only washed themselves, but socialized, painted, read poetry, sang, and feasted. Their bathhouses had special rooms for massage, gyms, and libraries.[4] Wealthy citizens went to the bathhouse twice a day. Both private and public baths were distinguished by exceptional luxury - swimming pools were made of precious marble, silver and gold were used to decorate sinks. By the first century BC there were around 150 thermas in Rome. Steam rooms were heated in the same way as Russian Banyas and Finnish Saunas: oven was placed in the corner, stones were laid on the bronze frame over the red-hot charcoal. Rooms with wet and dry steam were also available. Hot air was coming through a pipe under the floor. The structure of Thermas was complex: there were 5 rooms: a room for undressing and resting after bathing, swimming pool for the first bathing, a room for washing with warm and hot water, and finally a room for dry steam and wet bath.[5]

The Finnish sauna

Sauna is the closest relative of the Russian banya and because the ritual, folklore, and construction of the Russian banya and Finnish sauna are largely indistinguishable, it is safe to assume that they developed simultaneously.[1] Sometimes, they are distinguished by saunas having dry steam and banyas wet steam. However, historically, both types used wet steam. However, it is notable that, in modern Russian, a sauna is often called a "Finnish Banya", though possibly only to distinguish it from other ethnic high-temperature bathing facilities, such as Turkish baths referred to as "Turkish Banya." Sauna, with its ancient history among Nordic and Uralic peoples, is a source of national pride for Finns.[5]

The Turkish bath

Hammams (known as Turkish saunas) were not as luxurious as Roman baths. A visitor who enters the Bathhouse finds himself in a spacious hall, where he leaves his clothes and then proceeds down the stairs and through a long narrow corridor to the soap room. In this room he sees several niches for bathing and 3 narrow doors leading to steam bath, to a cooler room, and to the hall for resting. This is the order of the bathing procedure. Only after having completed it, one goes to give oneself to a masseur. The source of steam in Hammam (Turkish Sauna) is a gigantic tub of water inside the wall. The steam goes through the hole in the wall. Moreover, the entire bath is heated by the hot air, coming through a special pipe located under the marble floor. The bather lies on the hot stone and sweats. When sweating is plentiful, massage starts. Massage is one of the specialties of Turkish Bath. Sometimes it seems that the masseur beats his client; however the latter has an extremely pleasurable experience: his body is relaxing and his muscles become very flexible.[5]

Thermal bathing in other cultures

In North America, the use of sweat lodges by American Indians is similar in concept to the smoke saunas of Finland or the black banya and was recorded as early as 1643.[6] There is evidence of the use of sweat lodges in Mesoamerica before the European arrival, such as the Temazcal which is still used in some regions of Mexico and Central America.


The interior of a typical Russian banya

Banya buildings can be quite large with a number of different bathing areas[7] or simple wooden cabins like the traditional Finnish cottage saunas.[8] Russian banyas usually have three rooms: a steam room, a washing room and an entrance room. The entrance room, called a predbannik (предбанник) or pre-bath, has pegs to hang clothing upon and benches to rest on. The washing room has a hot water tap, which uses water heated by the steam room stove and a vessel or tap for cold water to mix water of a comfortable temperature for washing. The heater has three compartments: a fire box that is fed from the entrance room, the rock chamber, which has a small hole to throw the water into and a water tank at the top. The top of the water tank is usually closed to prevent vapour from infiltrating the banya. Water to be thrown on the rocks should be taken from the tank as this will make better steam than if cold water were used. If an electric heater is used, the firebox is omitted. Most Russians believe the wood-burning stove is a better banya heater and studies have shown that negative ions are produced from wood-fired heaters, while electric heaters produce positive ions. Physiologically, the presence of negative ions in a sweat bath is as important as the heat.[citation needed] Water from a bucket by the stove is poured over the heated rocks in the stove. There are wooden benches across the room. People enter the steam room when the stove is hot, but before water is poured on the rocks. Getting a good sweat on before using water is preferred to using steam right away, as the sweat is thought to protect and condition the skin from the steam.

Black banyas and white banyas

In a "black banya" (по-чёрному), the smoke escapes through a hole in the ceiling, while in "white banyas" (по-белому) there are exhaust pipes to vent the smoke. In the former, the escaping smoke darkens the banya's interior wood, hence the name. Both styles are characterized by boulder stones, clay balls and large cauldrons for the hot water as well as stone stoves with a tank to heat the water. The firewood is usually birch. A black banya is much more rudimentary and is generally considered to be less desirable than the "white banya."

Pokhodnaya or hiking banyas

Pokhodnaya banya

The pokhodnaya banya (походная баня) or "hiking banya," is popular among the Russian military, mountaineers and other people who travel for extended periods in harsh environments. It consists of a stone oven set up in a small makeshift tent. Hiking banyas are usually made near a lakeshore or riverbank where many big, round stones are available to build the banya's oven and there is plenty of cool water available for bathing. To construct a pokhodnaya, large stones are made into a dome-shaped circular oven, one to four meters in diameter and a half to one meter in height so that there is space left on the inside to make a large fire. Firewood is burned for several hours in this improvised stove until the stones on the surface of the pile become so hot that water poured on them turns into steam. Around the pile, a space is tarped to form a small tent and the banya is ready when it becomes very hot inside and there is a lot of steam. Fresh veniks can be cut from nearby birch or oak trees and bathers can take turns cooling off in the ice-cold mountain water.

The bathing ritual

Banya temperatures often will exceed 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) and special felt hats are typically worn to protect the head from this intense heat. Similarly, a user may prefer to sit on a small mat brought into the banya to protect his bare skin from the dry, hot wood of the banya's interior benches. In Russia, special felt hats are commonly sold in sets with felt mitts, along with aromatherapy extracts for inclusion into the steam water. People often hit (massage) themselves or others with bunches of dried branches and leaves from white birch, oak or eucalyptus (called veniks, веник) in order to improve the circulation. In summer, fresh branches are used. They have a short useful life and smell of cut grass. In winter, branches that have been dried and then moistened in hot water are used. It is important that the bushes have leaves, so they don't hurt when used. Another method that is used is freezing the venik in the summer when it has fresh leaves, followed by unfreezing it when necessary, to produce summer quality leaves in the winter months. In the central European Jewish baths Schmeis were used in place of birch twigs- long brushes made of rafia. After the first good sweat is induced, it is customary to cool off in the breeze outdoors or splash around in cold water or in a lake or river. In the winter, people may roll in the snow with no clothes on or may run to cold lakes where holes have been cut into the ice for post-banya bathing purposes. Then the banya is re-entered and small amounts of water are splashed on the rocks. If too much water is used at once, the steam will be cool with a clammy feel. A small amount of water on sufficiently hot rocks will evaporate quickly, producing a steam consisting of small vapour particles. Waving the venik causes convective heat. The second sweat is commonly the first time venik would be used, but it is not uncommon to wait until the third session. After each sweat, cooling off is repeated and patrons may take this break to drink beer, tea, or other beverages, play games or relax in good company in an antechamber to the steam room. Commercial banyas often have only a steam room or a steam room and a dry room, depending on local custom or the money the owner of the banya was willing to spend.

Health benefits

The high temperature in the banya has many health benefits. Excessive heat stimulates sweating, thus removing unwanted materials from the blood and improving the work of the kidneys.[citation needed] Sweating also releases excess water and salt from the body and opens the skin pores, cleaning it and making it softer and fresher. The process helps rid the muscles of excess lactic acid. Dilated blood vessels increase the flow of oxygen to muscles, reduces swelling and aids in the repair of tears. Steam bathing also stimulates protein circulation,[citation needed] improving digestibility of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and mineral elements. Because harmful bacteria and viruses can only survive within a narrow temperature range, the use of banya to create an "artificial fever" may aid the body in protecting against them.[citation needed] Finally, endorphins are released due to the increase in cardiovascular activity.

Examples: The Russian banya, or bathhouse, is a cross between the Finnish sauna and the steamy Turkish bath. (Smith 1976, The Russians, p. 151) In the steamy banya, people hit themselves and each other with bunches of twigs to open pores and improve circulation. (SPb Times 27.03.2000)

See also


  1. ^ a b c Aaland, Mikkel (1998). "The Russian Bania. History of the Great Russian Bath". Cyber-Bohemia. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  2. ^ Serge A. Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles and Tales,Meridian Books 1963.
  3. ^ Sauna Community, Roman Bath Culture
  4. ^ Id.
  5. ^ a b c, "The Russian Banya - Its Relatives"
  6. ^ History of Sweat Lodges
  7. ^ Russian Banya - Русская баня
  8. ^ Traditional Russian Sauna Is a Wood-Fired Sauna

External links

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