Les Britanniques découvrent l'eau du bain en Inde
2003-2004 : 150 ans de présence indienne
en Guadeloupe et en Martinique.

Smelling British sahibs learnt to bathe in India

The first Englishmen who came to India as servants of the East India Company were bewildered by many of our customs. Many of them commented on, in their letters home, the habit, among certain classes of the Hindus, of taking a daily bath.

The early factory-hands of John Company in India may have been somewhat scandalized by the fact that Hindu men and women of good families should not mind taking their baths in full view of others, what they found even more strange was that they should be washing their bodies at all.

For the British, the process of washing the body entailed lying prone in a tub half full of hot water. And how many houses in pre-Industrial England could have had metal containers large enough to accommodate grown men and women, and, even more, the facilities to heat up enough water? The conclusion was inescapable. For most Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries, a bath must have been a rare experience indeed, affordable to the very rich, who perhaps took baths when they felt particularly obnoxious, what with their zest for vigorous exercise, such as workouts in the boxing ring or rowing or riding at the gallop over the countryside. What a sensual pleasure it must have been to lie soaking in a tub full of scalding hot water? But such indulgences were possible only during the few weeks of what the English call their summer. For the rest of the year, the water in the tub could not have remained hot for more than a couple of minutes, and from November through February must have gone icy cold as soon as it was poured in. Brrrrr!

Then again, even those who thus bathed their bodies a few times every summer seem to have been careful to, as it were, keep their heads above water. In other words, a bath did not also involve a hair-wash. Otherwise there doesn't seem to be any reason why they should have found it necessary to coin-or adopt-a special word to describe the process of bathing hair: shampoo, which, 'Hobson Jobson' tells us is derived from the Hindi word, champi, for 'massage'. Why a word which normally described the process of muscle-kneading should have been picked on to explain a head-wash, is not at all convincing. It seems that the Company's servants used to send for their barbers every now and then to massage their heads with oil and then rinse off the hair with soap and water. So the head-champi, became 'shampoo'.

Which may explain why G.M. Trevelyans's English Social History does not so much as mention the word 'bath'. In the pre-industrial age it was, at best, an eccentricity indulged in by exercise-freaks in the summer months, and a head-bath was even rarer. English royal court felt compelled to post in 1589: "Let no one, whoever he may be, before, at or after meals, early or late, foul the staircase, corridors, or closets with urine or other filth."

But, out in the tropics they must have gone about smelling quite a bit. In fact, the Chinese, when they first encountered the White man described him as "the smelly one".

According to William Dalrymple, in his book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India: "Indian women, for example, introduced British men in the delights of regular bathing." And again:

"Those who had returned home and continued to bathe and shampoo themselves on a regular basis found themselves scoffed at as 'effeminate'."

(source: Smelling sahibs learnt to bathe in India - by Manohar Malgonkar - http://www.tribuneindia.com).


Early Christians took a dim view of bathing. St. Benedict in the 6th century declared that "to those who are well, and especially the young, bathing shall seldom be permitted." In the early 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi declared personal uncleanliness a sign of piety. Europeans have an interesting history of bathing. Long before they turned Christian, Scandinavians and Germans bathed naked in lakes and rivers during the summer months, and in public baths during the winter. With the advent of Christianity nakedness came to be associated with vulgarity, lascivious thoughts and, therefore, sinful. St Agnes (d. 1077) never took a bath; St Margaret never washed herself; Pope Clement III issued an edict forbidding bathing or even wetting one's face on Sundays. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the practice of bathing in rivers was frowned upon. In 1736 in Baden (Germany), the authorities issued a warning to students against "the vulgar, dangerous and shocking practice of bathing."

(source: The importance of bathing - by Khuswant Singh - tribuneindia.com).