here is more to hot springs than boiling water bubbling out of the earth: much more...
Traditionally, 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.
Scientists, 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:
Many 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.
But 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 infrastructure acceptable.
Two 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.
We 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!
Hogenakkal, 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.
Here, 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.
If 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!
Much 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.
In 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 Vashisth Baths".
Faith, 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.
The 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!
Devotees 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."
Warm 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.
Below 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.
Our 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.
Finally, 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!
We 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.
Or, 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.
The Cauldrons of the Earth
There 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.