Who are they?
The Bhisti are traditionally a community of water-carriers and supply water in skin bags. A few still do this work but drinking water has been made readily accessible and the Bhisti are no longer needed to provide water. The water is needed mainly by vegetable growers, at construction sites and at festivals, celebrations and religious gatherings. They are Muslims and are also known as Shaikh Abbasi or Saqqa in the Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, while in Gujarat they are referred to as Parkhali. In Madhya Pradesh, they are also called Sakka, Maski or Pakhali and in Maharashtra, as Pakhali. In Delhi, they are known as Shaikh Abbasi, Sakka and Mashki or Maski.
The Bhisti live in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Anthropologists, Russel and Hiralal (1916), note that the word is derived from the Persian bhisht, meaning paradise. This named was given to them because they brought water to thirsty soldiers. Mashki is derived from the Persian mashak, meaning skin bag, which they use for carrying water. The Bhisti claim their ancestry, and name, Shaikh Abbasi, from Hazrat Abbas Alamdar, the paternal uncle of the prophet Mohammed. According to their history, he was the first person sent to get water from a pond in a skin bag for Imam Hussain and his followers on their way to Damascus. They claim to be originally Rajput (high Hindu caste of warriors) who converted to Islam long ago.
The Bhisti speak Urdu and use the Persian-Arabic script. They are conversant with the languages, dialects and scripts of the many regions they live in.
What are their lives like?
For many generations the Bhisti have carried and supplied water in skin bags and some continue to do so. Others have taken up other occupations such as labor, agriculture, shop-keeping, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, welding, painting, tailoring, panel beating, making copper vessels and steel boxes, government or private service, religious teaching, driving bullock carts and tongas (horse carriages). A few are lawyers or teach at public schools and colleges. Most Bhisti do not own land and the few who do, have very small plots.
The women work from their homes and are clever at making bidis (dried and rolled tendu leaves) and kites. Some work at factories sewing garments for exporters. Knitting, fine embroidery and weaving durries is a specialty of the women of Himachal Pradesh. Child labour is common.
The Bhisti enjoy meat an eat buffalo; camel and horse meat is eaten out of necessity by the very poor. Pork is strictly prohibited by religion. They eat wheat, rice, maize and barley and coarse cereals like millet and bajra. Bajra and jowar, which are a cheaper substitute is eaten by the poor. They also eat lentils, vegetables and milk and dairy products. They chew and smoke tobacco and are not social drinkers. For celebrations they prepare special dishes like seviyan (semolina with milk), zarda (sweet rice garnished with dry fruits), and biryani (a rich, aromatic pilaf).
The Bhisti educate their sons but girls are taught religious studies only. Boys may study to high school and tertiary levels, depending on the financial means of the family, but a majority of finish at primary or high school because they cannot afford to study further.
The Bhisti rely on herbal remedies and traditional medicine. Faith in supernatural healing for curing diseases like jaundice and measles is common. Family planning is not practiced because they believe that children are a gift from Allah. The benefits of electricity, clean drinking water, bank loans and employment schemes have brought some improvement to their lives but they do not make full use of them due to ignorance, illiteracy and poverty.
The Bhisti are an endogamous community who prefer to marry with their cousins. Marriage with a father’s sister’s children or mother’s brother’s children is acceptable. Marriages with a father’s brother’s children or mother’s sister’s children are common. Junior sororate and junior levirate are also practiced. Adult marriages are preferred and are settled by negotiation, though the consent of the bride and groom is received during the marriage ceremony by the Muslim priest or qazi. Monogamy is the custom though polygamy is approved by Islamic law.
Glass bangles, earrings and nose-stud are symbols of marriage. Divorce is permitted on grounds of adultery, incompatibility and cruelty. Compensation, called mehar, is a predetermined amount that is fixed by the bride’s father in the presence of a priest and witnesses before marriage. Widows, widowers and divorcees are allowed to remarry. If a man chooses to remarry his own wife after divorcing her, he cannot unless she marries another man and is divorced by him. A married woman observes purdah in front of her husband’s male relatives, except his younger brothers and older men.
Families live as smaller unit with parents and children and also in extended families with other relatives. Inheritance rules are governed by Muslim law, and women receive a smaller share than her brothers. The eldest son succeeds as head of the family.
Women are secondary to men and do not work outside the house unless they are extremely poor. Very few women work. Women wear a burka (a garment with veiled eyeholes covering the entire body) worn in public. Though they are confined to their homes, they take part in rituals, social gatherings and sing folksongs at weddings and festivals. The palms of their hands and feet are painted with intricate designs with henna dye.
Women do not take an active part in politics except to vote. Caste councils have power and influence over their region. The Bhisti Jamat Samaj (congregation society) in Maharashtra and the informal councils of Delhi, Firqa in Himachal Pradesh and Jamat in Karnataka look after community issues.
What are their beliefs?
The Bhisti are Muslims and belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. They celebrate the festivals of Shab-ibarat, Id-ul-Fitr (the feast of alms) and Id-ul-Zuha or Bakr-Id (the feast when a lamb or goat is sacrificed). During the month of Ramzan or Ramadan, they fast from dawn to dusk for forty days. If they can afford it, they make a religious journey to Mecca, the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed.
The Bhisti honor as sacred the tomb shrines of Muslim Sufi saints. The tombs of two Sufi saints are especially revered. Their tombs are at Ajmer and Delhi. Flowers, money and a brightly colored and embroidered sheet is spread on the tomb, when a wish or prayer has been granted. The Bhisti may be devoted to a Sufi order of their choice. A Muslim priest called a maulavi, a qazi or a fakir performs rituals and conducts prayers.
The Bhisti have a strong belief in the supernatural and evil spirits. Older persons perform exorcisms and charms and amulets are worn to deter evil spirits, alleviate suffering and bring good luck. The Bhisti of Himachal Pradesh worships the village deity and offers sweets and incense to it. The village deity is believed to be the caretaker spirit of the village, and protects the villagers from natural disasters and sickness.
After birth, babies are shaved on the sixth day, and circumcision is performed for boys when they are six to seven years old. The dead are buried and death pollution is observed for a period of forty days. On the fortieth day a feast is given and clothes and money are given to the fakirs.