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HindustanTimes Tue,02 Sep 2014

The steamy art of Latvia's ritual saunas

AFP  Vecumnieki, Latvia, March 04, 2013
First Published: 16:53 IST(4/3/2013) | Last Updated: 16:59 IST(4/3/2013)

Lying face down in deep snow, naked, in bone chilling sub-zero weather is enough to make anyone think twice.

But such are the extremes required to penetrate the mysteries of the pirts - Latvia's little-known and complex interpretation of what is known in other parts of the world as the sauna, banya, hammam, Roman bath or Native American sweat lodge.

For Juris Batna, owner of the Lielzemes -- literally, Big Strawberries -- pirts complex 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of the capital Riga, there are no short cuts when it comes to the rituals of the Latvian bath-house.

"The pirts is the Latvian temple. That is no exaggeration," the 56-year-old told AFP.

Dressed in a crisp white linen shirt fastened with a shiny bronze pin, his calm manner and smooth complexion are immediate advertisements for the health-giving properties of the pirts.

"Long before Christianity arrived in Latvia with German crusaders, the pirts was our church," he sighs, harking back to pagan times before the 13th century advent of Christendom.

"Looking from the outside there may not seem to be a big difference between a sauna, a banya and a pirts - they are all small rooms with a high temperature. But the big difference is what we do inside. We call it a ritual," Batna explains.

It starts in a nice, quiet sauna, but soon becomes a full-scale sensory assault as Batna and his wife Aelita wave, rub and thrash their subject with a succession of bundled twigs reminiscent of a fairytale witch's broom.

Hot stones, wooden and woven symbols, rhythmic chants, bells, oils and more are gradually added into the ritual as the temperature soars in a thrilling and sometimes disconcerting mix of sight, smell, sound, touch, taste... and sweat.

A full ritual, properly conducted, should take at least three hours, and can sometimes last six Batna says, using a minimum of 12 different besoms.

The finishing touch, just as your senses threaten to go into meltdown is to plunge straight into a cold pool or, for traditionalists, rolling in the freezing snow outside.

But before embarking on that final stage and the subsequent period of sublime tranquility it brings, Batna pauses to speak.

"This is the point at which some people have -- what do you call it? -- oh yes, a near-death experience!" he smiles, pushing the door open.

But he has no time for so-called sauna marathons that spun headlines in 2010 when a Russian man died of hyperthermia at a self-styled "Sauna World Championship" in Finland.

"I would even say I hate such events," he sighs.

Composed of several beautiful wooden buildings showcasing different pirts variants, Lielzemenes has rapidly become a gathering place for fans of folklore, historians and others interested in a deeper understanding of their Latvian roots.

"There are more than 300 Latvian folk songs or dainas on the subject of the pirts, and it was always the location of the most important of life's events," Batna explains.

"Latvians were born in the pirts and at the end of their lives they were taken back there before burial," he adds.

Women engaged to be married undergo special rituals with their female kinsfolk in the days before their marriage and Batna and his wife have revived a tradition that sees newborn children and their mothers entering the pirts to mark the beginning of their lives together.

Another almost-forgotten ritual in which boys officially come of age and are given the status of men is another they would like to revisit.

Batna turned his back on a long and distinguished career as a clinical psychotherapist to devote himself full-time to the magic of the pirts, and now teaches hundreds of pupils who form communities of pirtnieki both in Latvia and abroad.

They in turn spread the word about the pirts and its uncanny, time-tested ability to make Latvians feel even more Latvian.

"The pirts is perhaps the one thing that has not changed through our history for thousands of years. It survived occupations, wars, deportations and more. Even in the Soviet era when the banya was popular, you would still see a Latvian pirts behind every little farmhouse," Batna says.

The revival of the age-old ritual is gaining steam across the ex-Soviet Baltic state of two million which joined the EU in 2004.

"It is important we do not forget this rich knowledge. Many of the people who come to me now already have a pirts building on their properties, but they are not sure how to use it properly. Usually as soon as they start to learn, they just can't get enough."

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