Bathing, through generations

11 04 2008

‘Bangun tidur kuterus mandi…’ This is the first line of an Indonesian children’s song that I remember about the habit of washing ourselves in the morning. This habit is a ‘taboo’ on holidays or Sundays, because on these days we tend to be too lazy to take a bath as early as usual. However, the habit of bathing, especially in the morning, is good to make us fresh to start the day.

Ones of the things that I could not find in the Netherlands were bath tank and water dipper. Obviously they are not known in the Netherlands. They only have badkuip or bathtubs and shower there. Bath tanks, even if they exist, must be of a giant size, which are called (swimming) pools. Therefore, in the old Dutch, there were only baden (to bathe in the rivers or ponds) and douchen (to take a shower). After it was known to them how we, Indonesians, wash ourselves (mandi in Indonesian), then mandiën entered into Dutch vocabulary. Along with it were the words mandiebak (bath tank, or bak mandi in Indonesia), mandiekamer (bathroom, or kamar mandi in Indonesian), and gajoeng (water dipper, or gayung in Indonesian). The list does not stop here, a literary man Louis Couperus even said that the term sirammen (siram in Indonesian) is also used related to activity of washing ourselves.

For Dutchmen who have lived in the East Indies, cleansing is a very interesting matter, because in their homeland cleansing it is a constraint, especially during winter. They usually did not take a bath, but rather splash water into their bodies and wiped them. All they needed is to spray some perfume, and that’s all. So, when they arrived in this tropical country, they found that bathing was a must for them, especially when they did not want to smell bad.

According to historian Anthony Reid, the abundant supply of water is one of the characteristics of tropical countries, especially in South East Asian countries. Therefore, they did not seem to worry about running out of water. In fact, they even look ‘wasteful’ when it comes to washing their bodies. However, water supply in several regions currently starts to become a concern.

In the 17th century, Asian people had the habit of washing their body in free flowing water, as opposed to European people who showed antipathy to it. Since the Asian people chose rivers to wash themselves, they tend to live along them.

If they found no river, they would pour a pail of well water onto their head. In this way, they kept bacteria from the lower part of their body away from their heads. This practice is safer than washing ourselves by bathing in tubs shared with all family members – from the oldest to the youngest ones (babies) – as found with people living in cold winter climate (Europe).

During VOC era, Dutchwomen, like Portuguese women, were ‘braver’ than their men in terms of dealing with water. The Dutchmen were ‘scared’ of water, or too reluctant to take a bath. Actually, there were pros and contras among Batavian Dutchmen themselves. Those who were accustomed to taking a bath felt uncomfortable when they did not do it. In those days, they used the word wassen (wash), instead of baden (bathe).

The group that saw the importance of taking a bath issued a special regulation to all VOC soldiers, requiring them to take a bath every eight or ten days. However, many did not comply with this regulation as required. They did not want to take a bath. Consequently, another regulation was issued stipulating that VOC soldiers in Rijswijk should not have been forced to take a bath once a week.

In 1804, an anti-bathing group received a support from Keuchenius, a doctor. He said that bathing was not necessary and was even considered bad for health. By this, Keuchenius actually referred to their bathing places – rivers – which were then described by J. Rach in details.

The bathing place during the VOC era, was called paviljoentjes and was a part of a luxurious building owned by VOC high officials. Under their bathing place, which was like an audience hall, there was a kind of cage with wooden bars. One who wished to cleanse would get down into the cage. Of course, this was in an open air.

However, in the 18th century, there were closed and half-closed bathrooms. Such as the one that belonged to Reinier de Klerk on Gadjah Mada Str. (now the National Archive building). According to F. De Haan, in Oud Batavia (1922), there were also big houses with waschhuis (wash house) in the backyard. In the unroofed structure, there was a wooden barrel and a water dipper. This kind of place was usually called mandihok (washing cage).

In the subsequent era, through olden time photographs, we can see wells in the backyard of Dutchmen’s houses. They functioned as springs of which the water would used for the bathrooms. Those bathrooms were also huge. Such as the one in my grandmother’s house in Menteng (already ruined); it was 2 m x 1.5 m x 1 m in size. In order to be able to clean it, we have to get into it.

Justus van Maurik, a cigar businessman from Amsterdam, wrote about bathing. He said in some East Indies hotels there was a warning hung on the wall:
Het is verboden in den mandiebak te baden of het water met zeep te verontreinigen.” (Don’t get into the bath tank; do not dirty the water with soap).

Interestingly, on June 1, 1861, a businessman called Victor Thornerieux established a hotel in Molenvliet (around Harmoni) which was called Hotel de l’Univers. Perhaps it was aimed at competing with des Indes Hotel just across the street and to look different from it, in an advertisement released by him, it is said that the Hotel de l’Univers was equipped with a bathing pool using river water!

Meanwhile, Augusta de Wit, a Dutch tourist who visited Java at the end of the 19th century, talked about his impression of bathing. In his opinion, taking a bath several times a day was a must. Those who did not do it would not be deemed as decorous. Bathing in the East Indies was different from that in Europe. In Europe, he usually only soaked in the tub, but in the East Indies he had to splash his entire body with a lot of water using a water dipper. It was such a luxury for body and soul, he wrote.

Living in the Netherlands, I miss the days when I bathed with a lot of water using water dipper. It feels like there is something missing, either in terms of the splash of the water or its freshness.

So, if you are accustomed to washing your body like you usually do in Indonesia, just don’t expect to find bath tanks in the Netherlands. Even if you yearn to take a bath in the river, don’t jump into the grachten (canals) there, because you would violate the law. The water is dirty anyway.

While, if you are in Indonesia, please remember one thing when you take a bath: Don’t waste too much water inconsiderately. Save water because many people in other regions experience droughts and are in severe need of water. Related to the issue of saving water, I once saw in an Amsterdam store a t-shirt with a text that reads: Save the water, I drink beer! I think in Jakarta we can replace it with: Save the water, I drink bajigur (bajigur is a West Javanese drink, served while warm, with the warm sensation of ginger, coconut milk, and palm sugar)