In search of Bishtis, Mumbai's vanishing water tribe
"You want to meet bhishtis?" asks my cab driver Tiwari, his lips red from chewing paan. "Why didn't you tell me earlier? There'll be a bunch of them in front of the masjid at Pydhonie."
On the ride to Pydhonie the cabbie regales me with facts about bhishtis and of his hometown Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh.
"We call them mashaqs," Tiwari says. "They have to pay cops in order to get some parking space for their patras (small water tankers that the bhishtis tow around). Bambai mein madney ko bhi baitho toh policewaaley aur BMC aakar kehtey hain, mar rahey ho? Pahley paisa do," chuckles Tiwari.
The taxi weaves through narrow lanes with rows of shops selling music instruments. We pass a stretch of wood carvers' shops with beautiful lattice work frames hanging outside.
We turn and suddenly we are in a clearing with a towering green mosque. I can't spot any bhishtis.
Tiwari looks around sheepishly, muttering, "They used to all hang out here."
I ask a cop in front of the masjid.
"They've all gone on their errands," he says. "You won't find them now. Come in the morning."
The search for water carriers
I had been wandering around parts of central Mumbai looking for bhishtis for a while.
The bhishtis are ancient water carriers. Most belong to families who have been in the profession for generations.
Their numbers have dwindled, but they can still be found in older areas such as Minara Masjid, Mohammed Ali Road, Null Bazaar, Dongri and Pydhonie. There's a Bhishti Mohalla near JJ Hospital.
Most bhishtis in Mumbai come looking for work from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Watching them run errands is like stepping back in time, when entire neighborhoods depended on these professionals for their water supply.
Bhishtis carry on one of the oldest surviving professions, dating from the time humans learned to store water in the skins of animals slaughtered for food.
The name bhishti is possibly derived from the Urdu word "bashisht" (paradise). Because water is the source of life, the person who brought water would be seen as someone from paradise.
Bhishti brothers: Sharafat Ali and Mohabbat Ali
On a sidewalk opposite Crawford Market, I meet the bhishti brothers Sharafat Ali and Mohabbat Ali in their gray-blue shirts, which seem to pass as a uniforms for bhishtis. They also have matching lungis.
Sharafat sits on a trunk piled on top of mattresses, under the shade of a small patch of blue tarpaulin, which also serves as the roof to the four-by-four-foot chunk of pavement he calls home.
He is taking a breather from work and looks worn out. Three waterskins hang next to him drip water on the pavement.
Nearby is a small water tanker with handles like a wheelbarrow. These are the tools of his trade.
Regular customers know that he sits here and come to this spot to order water.
"I sell about a thousand liters of water every day," says Sharafat, patting the leather pouch.
This waterskin, or mashaq, looks a lot like a guitar bag when full and is made from buffalo or goat skin.
In the winding lanes of Pydhonie and Minara Masjid, you will come across shops selling mashaqs. They cost between Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,000.
The mashaqs are hand-stitched by traditional tailors from Rajasthan, says Sharafat. A mashaq lasts for about a year and holds roughly 30 liters of water. The water is sold for Rs 10 to 15 per bhishti.
Water is procured from neighborhood baoris (wells). The nearest well for Sharafat are in Kalbadevi, about two kilometers away. The brothers are up at five in the morning to haul their patra to Kalbadevi, fill it and be back in their area.
Mumbai's new water drinkers
Sharafat says there has been a change in the profile of customers in recent times.
Earlier bhishtis provided water to households and families. Now most of their customers are construction workers employed on the many new buildings going up in the area or on building repairs.
The bhishti brothers also supply to nearby eateries. Sometimes households ask for their services when they run out of water. Customers on higher floors are charged about Rs 20-25 extra.
While we are talking, Sharafat is approached by a customer, Yusuf, who wants three bhishtis of water for his house.
While the brothers fill the water, Yusuf tells me the taste of water stored in a leather bag is distinctive. It's sweet and has a musky smell. In some places, he says, water carriers have switched to plastic and metal pots, but their water does not taste as good.
Back in the day, better times for bhishtis
Sharafat's brother Mohabbat Ali joins us, looking aloof and scowling a bit.
The bhishti brothers are khaandaani bhishtis. They are from Lucknow and have began helping their father carry water since they were old enough. Mohabbat talks about better times when bhishtis like his grandfather were more in demand.
During the Raj days, British troops valued bhishtis and got them to follow their troops from place to place. During the construction of roads and other labor-intensive infrastructure, water-carriers were much in demand, not just for drinking water, but also to water the pathway before the coal tar was laid down and again when steamrollers were put into action.
During wars in the desert, it was the bhishti (or his water bag) that the enemy tried to shoot.
Bhishtis firmly believe that they will get to heaven because it is a blessed task to give water to the thirsty. They believe they will wing their way to paradise on the strength of that heartfelt relief of a slackened thirst.
I remember reading Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din" -- an evocative portrayal of a bhishti who served water from his goatskin waterbag to grouchy British troops on the battlefield, who would berate him constantly.
"Put some juldee in it or I'll marro you."
Gunga gives the soldiers water as they lay dying. Toward the end, he crosses into the line of fire to offer the dying narrator a drink and dies in enemy fire. The British soldier's dying words to him are: "Though I've flogged you and I've flayed you/By the living God that made you/You're a better man than I am Gunga Din."
Today Sharafat and Mohabbat are on the edge of relevance, relegated to the status of quaint figures. Is this the last generation of bhistis we will see?
For lovely old photos of the bhishtis visit this directory at Columbia university, and click though to the gallery above for bhistis in Mumbai today.