Who are they?
The Fakir (also spelt as Faqir or Fakhir) are a community of religious mendicants or beggars belonging to the Islamic faith.
The Fakirs (2.2 million) are concentrated in the districts of Meerut, Moradabad, Bahraich, Sultanpur, Bareilly, Basti, Aligarh, Bulandshahr, Sitapur and Rampur of Uttar Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh they (180,000) are distributed in the districts of Sagar, Raisen, Jabalpur, Bhopal, Sehore, Hoshangabad, Betul, Seoni, Balaghat, Raipur and Bilaspur, while in Rajasthan the Fakir are concentrated in the districts of Jhunjhunu, Bikaner, Jaipur and Jodhpur. They also live in Delhi (370,000), Bihar (190,000), Maharashtra (33,000), Gujarat (65,000), Rajasthan (140,000), Himachal Pradesh (15,000), Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The community name of the Fakir is derived from the Arabic word faqr, meaning poverty. The founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, did not recognize religious asceticism and, according to ethnologists, Russel and Hiralal effectively discouraged it. Yet during his lifetime two of his companions established religious orders exercises, and all Fakirs trace their origin to them – Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Ali, the first and fourth Caliphs of Islam.
The same authorities also state that the Fakir community is divided into two classes: the Ba Shara or those who live according to the rules of Islam and marry; and the Be Shara or those without the law, who do not marry or have homes, use intoxicants, and neither fast, pray or control their passions. Several of the Fakir orders contain both married and celibate groups.
Another authority, H.A. Rose, in his Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and N.W.F. Province (1919), says that the Fakir were “notoriously profligate debauchers, who wandered about the country extorting alms by the threat of curses and relying on their saintly character for protection.” In Himachal Pradesh, where the Fakir are distributed in the Bilaspur, Mandi and Hamirpur districts, they claim their ancestry from a legendary saint, Roda Malang. He is supposedly one of the 101 Malangs, who are the descendents of a couple born through the tantric charisma of a saint, to whom they pray for protection against evil.
The Fakir who live in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi are also known as Sain. Sain is a corruption of the Sanskrit swami (lord.) Those belonging to the Zinda Shah group use the title Shah. In Maharashtra, they are called Shah and Sain; in Gujarat they are locally referred to as Bapu, Sai or Baba, while in Karnataka they are also known as Darvesh, Bava, Sai and Pir.
They speak Urdu and the Persian-Arabic script for writing. However, almost all are bilingual and speak Hindi along with the regional language of the state they reside in.
What are their lives like?
The Fakir people are traditional beggars. Some are nomadic and cover great distances, while others stay within a small area. They beg from both Hindus and Muslims, and are sometimes troublesome, performing masochistic acts like inflicting wounds on themselves as a means of extorting alms. Some live in Muslim cemeteries and collect a fee for bathing a dead body, digging the grave and burial or live near the tombs of Muslim saints and exist on offerings from visitors. They wear loose black garments and a rosary on which they repeat prayers.
As beggars, they have links with people of every community and religion. At special occasions, Muslim communities serve the Fakir food as they believe that Prophet Mohammed said that those who give alms to the Fakir (poor) in the name of Allah were great. The Fakir receives grain, cooked food and clothes during the holy month of Ramzan.
There are many from this community who have abandoned begging and have turned to agriculture, daily-wage labour and self-employment. In Madhya Pradesh, where they live mainly in cities, they run small businesses and drive auto or cycle rickshaws and taxis.
Some Fakirs are caretakers of mosques. Those from Himachal Pradesh breed sheep, cattle and goats and work as tailors, masons, in road construction and quarries.
The Fakirs eat meat, except pork which is forbidden by Islam. Their diet consists of wheat, rice and millets, supplemented by lentils and seasonal vegetables. Those who can afford to, have milk, milk products and fruit. They are fond of alcohol, except in Gujarat, where it is prohibited. They smoke or chew tobacco betel leaves.
The literacy rate of the Fakir is low. Boys receive some formal education but girls attend madrasas (religious schools) only. They continue to rely on traditional medicine and supernatural cures. They do not practice family planning. They are moderately open to the benefits provided by developmental programs regarding electricity and water supply as well as the Public Distribution System.
The Fakir is endogamous at the community level and consists of a number of subgroups in the different regions they inhabit. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh there are six distinct subgroups each: the Jalalia, Zinda Shah, Chisti, Qalandari, Pakhiya and Rafai, and in Delhi there are the Madari, Rafai, Jalali, Baingma, Pakhiya and Nakshbandiya. Most of these subgroups derive their names from founders, like Jalali from Jalaluddin and Nakshbandiya from Khwaja Mir Mohammed who was also called Nakshband or brocade-maker. Marriages are permitted between members of different subgroups.
Marriages are arranged by negotiation between family members of both sides; some marriages by exchange or service are also reported among the Fakir. Monogamy is the norm though polygamy is also permitted according to Islamic law. Child marriages were common, but have been replaced by adult marriages. Marriage symbols for women include toe-rings, finger rings, glass bangles, nose studs though not all women wear them.
Dowry is given in goods and a fixed sum known as mehar is promised to the bride for future payment in case of divorce. Divorce is allowed on grounds of adultery, maladjustment or cruelty. Following the divorce the husband is required to maintain his children. Remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees is freely permitted. The Fakir practice both parallel and cross cousin marriages as well as junior sororate and junior levirate.
Previously, the Fakir lived in joint families, but now they live apart, especially in cities. Both sons and daughters inherit parental property according to Islamic law and the eldest son succeeds as head of the family. However, in some states only sons inherit parental property equally and daughters are excluded.
Fakir women have a lower social status than their men and in many states, like Uttar Pradesh, they can be found begging independently. Some women work as agricultural labourers or daily-wage labour in construction. In conservative states like Rajasthan they do not leave the house for work or begging. The women have specific roles in the social, economic and religious spheres and sing folk-songs on occasions like births and marriages, as well as hymns in praise of Allah, to the accompaniment of the dholak (a barrel-shaped drum).
What are their Beliefs?
The Fakir people are adherents of Islam and belong to its dominant Sunni sect. Like other devout Muslims they offer prayers to Allah five times a day and keep a forty-day fast during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramzan or Ramadan. They worship Prophet Mohammed as Allah’s messenger to whom the Muslim scripture, the Koran, was revealed.
They have great faith in Muslim saints and regularly visit tomb shrines to pay homage and intercede to Allah. Annual fairs held at these shrines attract large numbers of Fakir, like the one at the tomb of Shah Makhdum Ashraf in Uttar Pradesh.
Priests perform all birth, marriage and death rites and at times are called upon to perform healings and exorcise evil spirits. He also gives religious teaching to the children. In Himachal Pradesh, a hypnotic dance, called Khel is performed to the beat of a damru (dumbbell-shaped drum) in order to treat persons possessed by evil spirits. Some Fakir may fall into a trance, believing that that they are possessed by a spirit. Any utterances made during this trance-like period are regarded as prophecies
The Fakir celebrate Muslim festivals like Id-ul-Fitr (Feast of Alms), Id-ul-Zuha or Bakr-Id (Feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice), Shab-e-Barat (15th night of the 8th Islamic month) Shaban, (when it is believed that people’s fortunes are recorded in heaven) and Bara Wafat (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday). The role of the Murshid (preceptor) is considered important in their festivals. The Fakir also desire to go on the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) at least once in their lifetime.
The dead are buried and rituals are observed on the third and fortieth days, respectively, after a death. The mourning period lasts for forty days at the end of which food is distributed among the poor. Birth pollution is also observed for forty days. Rituals after birth include shaving the head, circumcision for male children and a naming ceremony.
What are their needs?
The Fakirs remain illiterate and poor though government aid is available to them.