is more to hot springs than boiling water bubbling out of the earth:
the depths of the earth have always been viewed as the nether
regions, places of heat and darkness populated by all sorts of
unsavory creatures: ugly as sin, vicious and quite literally,
devilish. Consequently, anything that emerged from there,
particularly if it was hot and smelly must have super natural
properties. And anything that is super natural can be made to have a
super effect: like curing otherwise incurable diseases.
however, tend to be wet-blankets at times; they often rob us of our
most hopeful dream. In this case they threw cold water on our
conventional reverence for hot springs. While the Brits and the
Europeans flocked in droves to the spas, where mineral waters gushed
out of the earth, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the
Encyclopedia Britannica views the mystique attached to them with
skepticism. It says:
authorities now believe that most of the beneficial effects of spa
therapy are indirect, resulting from relaxation of the patient
facilitated by the environment of the spa.
while science might try to rob hot springs of their magical powers,
we can assure you from our personal experience in Himachal, Haryana
and Orissa that if the hot water has sulphur content, if it has the
odour of a flaring match, then it does work on the skin. It left our
skins dry and smooth and gave us a great feeling of well-being. We
certainly recommend bathing in such hot springs if you find the
kings of ancient India didn't bother much about infrastructure but
they were concerned about their disfiguring skin diseases. Wise men
in their courts advised them to take a dip in specific ponds in their
kingdoms. The northern Indian king was told to bathe in Suraj Kund;
the eastern Indian monarch was told to immerse himself in the pond at
Konark. Legend says that both were cured of their embarrassing
afflictions but we don't know if the waters of these ponds were, at
that time, either hot or sulphurous or both. The pond at Konark no
longer exists and though Suraj Kund still has its kund, or pond, the
water is neither hot nor musty. Interestingly, both Konark in Orissa
and Suraj Kund in Haryana have associations with the Sun God, Surya,
whose rays often have a good effect on human skins.
do, however, also have a river-water spa. In Hogenakkal, in Tamil
Nadu, the waters of the Cauvery (Kaveri) River have been diverted to
sluice down into separate rows of bathing cubicles for men and women.
After bathing in these cascades, visitors place themselves in the
hands of traditional masseurs and masseuses who lay them on slabs of
stone and knead, pummel and twist them into shape. People who have
had the experience assure us that it's very invigorating and leaves
them `firing on all cylinders' for days to come!
however, has the only cold healing waters we know of in India. All
the others are hot springs, many of them with a distinct aroma of
sulphur. Since most of them are in or near the Himalayas, we'll deal,
first, with the lone exception: Taptapani in Orissa.
up in the wooded hills of the district of Gangam, hot water bubbles
into a natural basin. The spring is revered with offerings of flowers
as the manifestation of divinity. Devotees bathe in these waters and,
generally, there is only the faintest odour of mineral salts. Others
opt for the Panthanivas, one of the chain of hotels run by the Orissa
Tourism Development Corporation. The bathroom attached to our room
had a sunken bath in which we immersed ourselves up to our necks and
felt a bit like ancient Roman citizens who were addicted to such
luxuries. We understand that every room has piped hot sulphur water
so this would be your best bet if you want to soak in healing water
shielded from the ogles of onlookers.
you're in Delhi, however, you can drive out to Haryana's Sohna.
There is a hot spring some distance below the Tourist Bungalow and
they pump up enough water to serve one of their bathrooms. It's
pleasantly warm when it reaches you and the acrid aroma seems to wax
and wane in strength depending on the tectonic forces beyond the
control of Haryana Tourism!
of Haryana is on or near the Shiwaliks: a range of mountains that
runs parallel to the Himalayas. The Himalayas are young mountains,
still rising, still creating a line of tremendous pressure under the
earth. At points along this line, as might be expected, there are
bubbling, steaming, hot springs.
Manali, in the Himalayas of Himachal, they have tapped these hot
springs and created the Vashisth Baths. Here you can hire private
bats for couples or, bigger ones, for a family. After soaking in this
hot, sulphurous, water we wash off the reek in fresh water. Not
everyone does. a Swiss backpacker we met in Manali told us that all
his friends believed that the water was antiseptic and that it should
be allowed to dry on the body. That way, he said, the salts cure
insect bites and heal wounds and abrasions. "My friends,"
he continued, "have great faith in the healing powers of the
undoubtedly, does play a major part in the religious hot springs
which are associated with at least three Himalayan shrines: another
one in Himachal and two in the Garhwal Himalayas.
gurudwara, the Sikh shrine, at Manikaran in Himachal, rises above the
swift-flowing Parvati River. The river, at this point, is chill with
the ice-melt of two glaciers and yet, when the water of the springs
of Manikaran pour into the Parvati, clouds of steam billow up. The
water is so hot that visitors regularly use it as a boiler: they
dangle a bag of rice in it, go about their other business, and return
when lunch is ready!
believe that the spring was produced by their great teacher, Guru
Nanak Dev and, therefore, it "is the only one in the world which
is sulphur free". They have constructed a tank called the Guru
Nanak Ha Har Sarovar and assert, "Continued bathing in this tank
can lead to the eradication of a number of diseases related to pain."
baths, in the normal course, relieve aching muscles and arthritic
joints and, after a long and rather bone-jolting journey to another
Himalayan shrine, Badrinath, a hot water bath worked wonders.
this shrine, in the Garhwal Himalayas, there are two public baths fed
by hot springs: one for men and the other, more secluded, for women.
They are very popular. In fact many pilgrims believe that if you want
Lord badri, the deity of Badrinath, to grant a boon then it's best to
bathe in one of the public baths before entering the temple. The
water is hot enough to send small spirals of steam up into the chill
Himalayan air. The Tourist Bungalow and some of the hotels have
standing arrangements with water-carriers to supply water from the
sacred hot springs to guests in their bathrooms: this is how we
experienced its therapeutic effects.
family has also bathed in another hot spring in Garhwal: the one at
the small shrine at Gangnani. Hot water cascades out from this
thermal spring, down a chute from behind the temple, and pours into a
men's and a women's pool. This is scalding hot even when it gushes
out of the uncovered channel and, judging from the mineral deposits
on the channel, it is high in salts but sulphur does not seem to be a
major component of them. Quite inadvertently we sipped some of this
hot water. It tasted strongly alkaline with a bitter after-taste.
in our brief tour of some of India's healing waters we must mention
the public pool at Tapovan, near Joshimath. Here the water is hot,
clear and quite odourless. Even though there is a little shrine
nearby, the pool is, clearly, not regarded as holy. In fact, whenever
we've visited it, the men disporting themselves in the pool were
quite boisterous. One of them, who described himself as "Ram
Prasad, a farmer from this area", said that he had broken his
right arm as a child. "There were no doctors in those days but
my grandmother put it in a ringal, a Himalayan bamboo splint, and
told me to sit in the Tapovan kund every day for an hour for fourteen
days. And look at it today... you can't say that it was ever
broken..." and he extended his left arm proudly. We thanked him
for his story. He had been cured so long ago that he had probably
forgotten which arm he had broken!
know that warm water promotes the circulation of blood and that is
always beneficial in hastening the body's natural healing processes.
And we have experienced the effects of sulphur dissolved in some of
these hot springs. Beyond that, however, there is little scientific
evidence that such subterranean waters do promote healing. But then,
science has not been able to explain the hundreds of cures that have
occurred in Lourdes, many of them on people who had no faith in the
miraculous properties of that spring in France. It is possible that
all these waters, touched by the volcanic and radic-active fires deep
in the earth, might contain properties which our present day
instruments have not been able to detect.
perhaps, if enough people believe that certain springs have
therapeutic properties, the waters of those springs begin to acquire
them. And with a billion people in our land, our power of positive
thinking should be formidable enough to vitalize every one of the
greatly reputed Healing Waters of India.
Cauldrons of the Earth
is nothing magical or devilish about a hot spring. It's a very
natural phenomena. Below the earth's crust is molten silicate
material, the stuff of which sand is made, at a very high
temperature. Ground water, like rain, trickles down to this hot magma
and is converted into steam. If the steam finds a crack leading up to
the surface, it sprouts out as a vent, or fumerole. If the steam is
combined with sulphurous gases, it's called a solfatara: it often has
the obnoxious smell of rotten eggs. If there is no crack leading to
the surface, the steam percolates upwards, mixes with ground water,
and becomes a hot spring. And if there is a crack at the bottom of
the hot spring then, when enough water trickles down and is forced up
as steam, it spouts out, through the hot spring, as a geyser. The
only Indian geysers we know about are the ones in Ladakh. But then, a
hot spring can, at times, act like a geyser, emit smelly gases like a
solfatara, or produce vents of steam like fumeroles.