Lota: a small, usually spherical water vessel of brass, copper or plastic used in South Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa to maintain personal hygiene.
“I knew I should’ve put my lota in the safe,” I thought to myself, crestfallen. I had returned to my hotel room, a trying day of meetings behind me, to discover my lota missing. Housekeeping must have thrown it away. “That pitiful little glass by the ice bucket won’t do,” I had concluded two days earlier when checking into the hotel. Instead I had guzzled down a 32 ounce bottle of water so the empty plastic container could serve as my makeshift lota for the duration of my stay.
I went to great lengths to keep it out of housekeeping’s reach, strategically tucking it in the closet behind my suitcase. This proved successful on the first day, but on day two I left in a rush, leaving my precious lota perched on the ledge of the tub by the toilet. It was bound to be thoughtlessly discarded. Sadly, its purpose and elevated status went unnoticed. Had housekeeping recognized that this was more than an empty bottle, it would have been carefully placed on the floor within reach of the toilet, rather than tossing it in the trash. After all, it is for this very reason that Muslims vigorously wash the hotel coffee pot two or three times before its sanctioned use—we know a previous Muslim guest might have substituted the pot for a lota.
Had I been visiting family, I would have assumed the culprit was one of my young nephews. Every toddler in my family, almost as a rite of passage, becomes obsessed with the lota upon discovering its existence. This involves lying in wait for the opportunity to steal away unnoticed to the bathroom and dumping the contents of the lota onto their heads. This act of mischief is further exacerbated when my grandmother visits. Her very exacting expectations require nothing less than a completely full lota at all times, thus creating a small deluge covering the bathroom floor.
My discarded plastic bottle, while functional, had been a far cry from the ornate lotas that are part of a bridal trousseau in South Asia‒gilded with gold, silver and designed with an easy-to-grip handle and an elegantly arched spout. Still, my substitute was functional in both capacity and volume. It could have rivaled my brother’s “turbo lota,” which he had proudly constructed by cutting off the tip of a gardener’s watering can to allow for maximum water flow. In our house, “turbo lotas” were a standard gift for each sibling moving away to college. My brother’s rudimentary creations had become popular among our family and friends, putting to shame the traditionally shaped plastic lotas, which lacked in structural integrity, but made up for it in aesthetic charm, available in pink, lavender, and mint green at the South Asian stores across town. My mom would brag about her son’s ingenuity, regaling her sister with praises of the “turbo lota” over the phone.
Despite its power and practicality, it is hard to explain to non-Muslim friends why I have a watering can with a sawed-off spout sitting next to the toilet in a bathroom with no plants. I am never able to muster a more articulate explanation than something about Muslims being really into hygiene. It is the same weak explanation I mutter when caught sneaking a water bottle into the bathroom at work. One can only envy the brazen courage exhibited by a man I once saw getting on a New York City subway with a lota tied to a string nonchalantly slung over his shoulder like a proud accessory.
I was happy with my humble plastic bottle: I liked the lota in its most primitive design. Many Muslims had caught onto the trend of installing a water hose, affectionately called the “Muslim shower,” beside the toilet, but this often resulted in leaks and unpredictable water pressure. The “Muslim shower” in my parents’ bathroom for example left the user undecided as to whether to be more upset by the water’s high pressure or its scalding temperature (in fact, sometimes the water sprayed out with such fury that it flew off into unanticipated directions, leaving puddles on the floor).
Whatever the persuasion, lotas remain elemental to our existence. These unassuming water vessels bring an inexplicable comfort to one’s life, making a house a home or tethering the peripatetic wanderer to the land upon which she rests. I knew I should’ve put my lota in the safe‒ with the same care one pays all those things that make up one’s very self.
Wajiha Rizvi is an attorney based in Austin, TX. Her writing focuses on food, history, and her experiences as a first generation American.
Photo Credit: Islamicanews