These Bhishtis are keeping tradition alive, one thirsty stranger at a time
It is Thursday, a day after two storms have hit Delhi-NCR, and a couple of days before yet another was to rattle it. As anyone who has lived in the Capital would testify, the heat, pregnant with precipitation, could smother the wits out of anyone who dared to venture out at midday. In a corner near gate number two of Jama Masjid, the air is thick with the aroma of incense and Sufi songs. There is a dargah tucked in the nook. The Bhishtis, or water carriers (for lack of better translation) of Old Delhi are engaged in their daily business. This time of the year is when they become all the more important. They have been occupied in the profession of providing water to the thirsty and keeping the surroundings cool by sprinkling water. They carry a goat-skin bag, mashak, which can hold up to 80 litres of water.
Khalil, sewing and repairing bags, is perched on a takht (raised platform). “My father used to do it, and seeing him, this is what I do now. I don’t know how long has it been, but this is the only work I have been dedicated to,” says Khalil, one of the few Bhishtis busy keeping the tradition alive.
A multitude of mashaks line his establishment. His brother, 50-year-old Muhammad Jamil, has busied himself with filling the mashak. He grabs a slab of ice and carefully breaks it into three solid pieces. He then proceeds to fill the mashak with water from a well, situated at the back, right in front of the dargah. “Hum Mughalo ke daur se yeh kaam kar rahe hain. Pehle kaafi kaam tha, par ab agle 2-3 saalo mein hum nahi dikhenge (Our community has been doing it from the time when Mughals used to rule. There used to be a lot of work earlier, but it’s waning now. You won’t see our lot in the coming years),” he says. Just then, people start circling him and he serves them water in the two small bowls he is carrying. Some ask him to fill their water bottles. A girl sprints by; he pours water on her head and giggles with her. He graciously accepts whatever little money they give him.
In Delhi, Bhishtis can also be found near the baoli in Nizamuddin. A little distance away, at the Delhi Gate Cemetery, 46-year-old Ismail is employed in the task of sprinkling water on the graves, where it’s difficult to carry pipes or have a drainage system. “Kabristaan ke kaam ko log neecha samajhte hain, par kaam toh koi bhi bura nahi hota (People look down upon the work that I do at the graveyard, but work is work),” he says. Filling his mashak, he goes on to show us how he works. “Mera kaam mayyat dafan karne ka hai; mitti geeli karne ka (My job is to make sure that the soil is wet during burials),” he says.
A people of communal harmony
Bhishtis belong to the Abbasi community. It is said that Prophet Muhammad had asked Hazrat Abbas to carry water from a pond in a mashak when Imam Hussain and his followers were on their way to the battle of Karbala. The term Bhishti, we are told, comes from the Persian word ‘bahisht’, meaning paradise. “Providing water to the thirsty is among the good deeds laid down in Islam,” says Abu Sufiyan, founder of Purani Dilliwalo ki Baatein, a blog dedicated to bringing the treasures of Old Delhi to the world. In the olden days, during Ramleela processions, these Bhishtis used to walk ahead, sprinkling water along the way. “Even today, before Holika Dahan, the Bhishtis clean the area where the fire is supposed to be lit,” he adds.
Costs don’t match the income
While the water is drawn from the well, ice slabs cost around ₹150. The mashaks cost about ₹2,500 plus repairs, which come to about ₹200. One mashak lasts for about seven months. “We make 8-10 rounds and are able to make up to ₹400 a day. But with water coolers and packaged water, we have become obsolete,” says Jamil. People pay them as they wish; they never ask for money. Informing us about the system at the cemetery, Ismail says, “I am paid a salary of ₹7,200 by the cemetery. I am sending my children to school so that they do well in life.”
In addition to monetary costs, Bhishtis also have to bear the physical brunt of their profession. “It affects the knees and heels, but I like doing it,” he adds with indifference, as the muezzin calls out for the Asr (afternoon) namaaz. It’s time to leave the departed resting in peace.
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