By documenting the loss and revival of Afghan Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk, a living heritage site, author Tanvi Maheswari seeks to inspire people

Books on architecture are not exactly a dime a dozen, so when they come they understandably fan our curiosity. Works like “Life of an Afghan Hammam: Ignited Extinguished Rekindled” go one step further, because it tells a story rather than confining itself within a didactic framework.

Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk in Afghanistan is a beautiful example of living heritage. Built in 1848, the bath house was ravaged by the flood in the Kholm river in 2010. Three years later, it is back to being what it used to be. A busy public space utilised by men and women to not just bathe but also socialise, perform rituals and have entertainment. Architect Tanvi Maheswari in her book weaves an engaging narrative of this incredible structure from its heydays to its loss and, finally, its revival. Tanvi was part of AFIR, a design and architecture firm (with offices in Delhi and Kabul) which was working on the restoration of the hammam in collaboration with local experts, Government of Afghanistan, and Prince Claus Fund. The latter issued funds to the hammam under the aegis of its Cultural Emergency Response Programme.

When Tanvi and others in her AFIR team led by Anne Feenstra were working on the site attempting to restore it, she was only documenting the whole process. The idea of the book came later, when the young architect realised how she could use the opportunity to show a different side of Afghanistan that we rarely see. “It was a small triumph but a triumph nevertheless of the local people of the area who took control of the situation and decided to save it. The entire village wrote a letter to the authorities asking them to intervene. I realised it was much more than just a bathhouse for the community. It was a place where women could go alone with kids — certain days are reserved for them — chat, gossip and socialise. Certain rituals are performed there, and it also serves as a matrimonial market for women. I have written it like a mosaic, strewn with stories, photographs, poems and calligraphy.”

Even though privately owned — the owner is called a hammami — the community realised that they can’t afford to lose it. The author says it is always culture that takes a backseat in a turmoil but it can prove to be a source of succour and psychological hope. In India and the world, political, natural or social disasters often render these examples of living heritage in a state of emergency. “And people can take inspiration from such places. It is relevant to situations and places like rural India, post-tsunami, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh… in fact, entire South Asia.”

The writer rebuilds its past by delving into the history of Kholm, a small town in North Afghanistan where the hammam is situated. Earlier known as Tashqughan, it was under the rule of Mir Wali that the town transformed into the most important one in Afghanistan. The place gained one of the biggest covered markets in the world and the hammam during his period. The relevance of hammams in Afghan society and their history is highlighted through a number of stories on Mullah Nasreddin, Abu Sir, Rabia Balkhi that Tanvi has included in the book. “Afghan hammams are very different from Turkish hammams. They are very austere and simple structures. What made this hammam even more special was that it had a mihrab (a semi-circular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of the Kaaba). The whole idea of having a mihrab inside the area where you bathe is quite controversial.”

Then there are chapters on the ex-hammami Wahidullah, restoration work carried on by AFIR in collaboration with local experts using the traditional techniques, and personal experiences of the AFIR team members on and around the site, which take the story forward. As of now the book is available online on the website of Prince Claus Fund.

(“Life of an Afghan Hammam” will be released on May 3, Friday, at 7 p.m. at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. It will be followed by a discussion ‘CulturalEmergencyNOW’ jointly presented by no man’s land and arch i.)