To a weary traveller or parched soldier in 19th-century India, there was perhaps no sight as welcome as the approach of a bhishti. A quick untwisting of the mouth of the mashaq slung over his shoulder, and cool clear water would splash into a grateful cupped palm. Under the relentless tropical sun and far from a well or spring, a bhishti represented nothing short of divine deliverance.

‘Bhishti’ is derived from the Persian ‘bihisht’ meaning paradise. For centuries in the Subcontinent, these water-bearers have served a critical function in crowded cities and battlefields. Even as rulers built wells, rainwater tanks and increasingly sophisticated systems to supply freshwater to their citizenry, the bhishti remained a critical link in the last mile of delivery. Until the advent of piped water.

Today, you will find the last of India’s bhishtis plying their trade in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Stooped under the weight of their mashaqs—now often replaced with bright plastic buckets—they make a living by delivering water to homes, shops and community centres in congested urban neighbourhoods.

The Sarmaya Arts Foundation, in collaboration with photographer Aslam Saiyad, presents a story of one such traditional water-carrier operating in Mumbai. Let’s follow him through a typical day and listen to his trepidations about the future, even as we trace the vivid history of the bhishtis through lithographs and 19th-century photographs from the Sarmaya archive. 

Aslam Saiyad’s photographs and text were first published in a virtual exhibition titled The Last Bhishtis by the Living Waters Museum’s Mumbai Water Narratives project in March 2021 

He walks the land when the heaven above him is
brass and the earth iron, when the trees and
shrubs are languishing and the last blade of grass
has given up the struggle for life, when the very
roses smell only of dust, and all day longthe
roaring "dust devils" waltz about the fields,
whirling leaf and grass and corn stalk round and
round and up and away into the regions of the sky;
and he unties a leather thong which chokes the
throat of his goat-skin just where the head of the
poor old goat was cut off, and straight-way, with a
life-reviving gurgle, the stream called thunda
paneegushes forth, and plant and shrub lift up
their heads and the garden smiles again.

- Edward Hamilton Aitken on the Bhishti in
 'Behind the Bungalow' 1899

Please click to listen to the audio.

Bhishtis trace their ancestry to Hazrat Abbas, son of the fourth Rashidun Caliph, Imam Ali. Hazrat Abbas was known for his bravery and devotion to Islam, which earned him numerous titles. One of them was ‘Saqqa’ or water-carrier, a honorific bestowed after the battle of Karbala in Iraq (680 CE), in which he sacrificed his life to fetch water for his half-brother Imam Hussain’s children.

Durgah Huzrat Abbas (Hazrat Abbas), Lucknow, c. 1870s, Darogha Abbas Alli

Lucknow is still home to Dargah Hazrat Abbas, built to honour the sacrifice of the original water-bearer. During the Uprising of 1857, the shrine provided assistance to the Indian sepoys and Begum Hazrat Mahal.

‘The Last Bhishtis’

Deep in the maze of the narrow lanes of Bhuleshwar in south Mumbai, Manzur Alam Shaikh wakes up by 5 a.m. every day and gets to work.

‘The Last Bhishtis’

Often clad in a checked lungi , Manzur pushes his rented 550-litre metal cart towards Cowasji Patel Tank to fill it up with water. The area is about a kilometre from where he lives – out in the open, at the corner of a public toilet in Dudh Bazar, near Mirza Ghalib Market. He returns to Dudh Bazar with his cart, picks a spot to park it, and starts delivering water to his customers in shops and households nearby.

(left) Bhisti, late 19th century, (right) Bhisti (or Water Carrier,) Palitana, late 19th century-early 20th century

Two components are characteristic of a bhishti: the mashaq or mashak, and the pukkal. The mashak, anglicised to mussock, is a water bag made from the cured skin of goat and other livestock. It can accommodate 30-35 litres of water. A pukkal is a significantly larger bag, typically carried slung over a bullock.

‘The Last Bhishtis’

Yunus, who is in his 60s, used to earn a living crafting and mending mashaks in Bhendi Bazar.

Four months after the March 2020 lockdown, Yunus went back home to Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh. While he did return to Mumbai in December that year, he didn’t have much work. Only 10 mashakwalas or so operate in the area, and after the Covid-19 lockdowns, customers started paying less for his services. Without much hope, Yunus returned to Bahraich in early 2021, never to return. He said he had lost the strength to mend mashaks.

True to their origin on the battlefields of Karbala, the bhishtis continued to play an important role in the Subcontinent’s military history through the Mughal and British eras. The water-bearers were a critical part of every major army retinue. In 1539, at the battle of Chausa in present-day Bihar, a bhishti saved Mughal emperor Humayun’s life in the battle against Sher Shah Suri. This nameless hero inflated a mashak, so the Emperor cross the Ganga on it and escape to safety. He was rewarded with a day on the throne as imperial commendation for his bravery. The bhisti is believed to have been laid to rest in one of the many unmarked graves at Ajmer’s Sharif Dargah.

Details from the Line of March of Bengal Regiment of Infantry in Scinde, 1840s

So notable was the role of bhishtis in the British army that Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem Gunga Din in 1890 about a noble water-bearer. Set against an imperialist backdrop and undeniably racist in parts, the poem still stands as a testament to the heroism and selflessness of the bhishti. In fact, its most famous line is the last one in which the British narrator concedes, “You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din”.

                        ’E carried me away
                        To where a dooli lay,
                        An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
                        ’E put me safe inside,
                        An’ just before ’e died:
                        ‘I ’ope you liked your drink,’ sez Gunga Din.
                        So I’ll meet ’im later on
                        At the place where ’e is gone—
                        Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
                        ’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals,
                        Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
                        An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
                        Yes, Din! Din! Din!
                        You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
                        Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
                        By the living Gawd that made you,
                        You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

(left) The final verse from ‘Gunga Din’ by Rudyard Kipling (right) Bhishti from Costume of Hindostan by Franz Balthazar Solvyns, 1807

Regardless of their faith, bhishtis have belonged predominantly to Dalit communities. It is remarkable to consider the history of these water-bearers, given how harshly access to drinking water is policed even today in Indian society. Navigating the rigid lines defining untouchability and caste purity, bhishtis have adapted to survive. For example, in deference to religious sentiments that prohibited the touching of animal products, they would swap the leather mashak for canvas ones while serving the Hindu and Muslim troops of the British Indian army. Some bhishtis also used additional utensils or other vessels to transfer the water.

Bhistis at the well (Water carriers at the well), late 19th century- early 20th century,

Bhishtis (Water-Carriers), late 19th century

Rudyard Kipling’s father didn’t share his romantic notions about the bhishti. In his 1891 book Beast and Man in India, John Kipling foresaw that the introduction of piped water in Indian towns would improve public health by reducing fatalities from water-borne diseases, and sound the death-knell for the bhishti.

More than a century later, the profession continues its slow walk towards extinction. Some of the older neighbourhoods in India’s most populous cities still find uses for the water-bearer—but just barely.

‘The Last Bhishtis’

The tradition of supplying water from a mashak “is dead now”, says Manzur. “Older bhistis will have to go back to their villages, and the younger ones will have to find new jobs.”

“This is the final chapter of our bhisti job,” predicts Babu. “There is no money in it. Motorised pipes have replaced our work.” Babu Nayyar is seen watering a shopfront with his mashak, near Nawab Ayaz Masjid in Bhendi Bazar, where he works as a bhishti. Several shop owners call the bhistis to clean the area in front of their stores. Babu, Alam and Manzur are all from the same village, Gachh Rasulpur, in Bihar's Katihar district.

‘The Last Bhishtis’

“Those living in buildings started ordering water from tankers. People also installed pipelines for water. And now, offering bottled water has become the practice at weddings, but we used to supply the water before,” says Manzur. Unable to find anyone to repair his leather bag, Manzur was also forced to switch to plastic buckets. “After Yunus, there is no one to repair the mashak,” Manzur confirms. He finds it difficult now to lift water in buckets and climb stairs. It was easier with a mashak , which could be worn slung over the shoulder and held a larger quantity of water.

Public Drinking Water Tank, Char Null, Dongri, 2022, Mumbai The inscription on top honours Imam Husain, and the Sabeel (spring of water) is left open for anybody to use at no cost

In Mumbai, a few traces like this one in Char Null, Dongri remain as evidence of the water-bearer’s contribution to modern Indian cities. This public water tank, designed to look like a mashak, quietly recognises the long, arduous road walked by generations of tireless, life-saving bhishtis.

References/Further Reading

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