The Last Bhishtis

Photo Source: Aslam Saiyad

The Water Carriers of Mumbai

This photo essay captures the lives of the bhistees, once revered as the messengers of bahisht or paradise,
but who today are fast fading into oblivion from the face of the city.

Deep within the bylanes of the older sections of Mumbai, stroll a few men carrying on their aching shoulders a goatskin
water carrier or mashq and the legacy of a community that quenched the thirst of innumerable parched throats.


Photo essay by Mohmad Aslam Saiyad Story written by Minaz Ansari (English and Urdu) based on inputs by Mohmad Aslam Saiyad Voice over Mohmad Aslam Saiyad

मुंबईचे पाणी वाहक

या दृक्श्राव्य कथानकाच्या माध्यमातून भिश्ती बांधवांचे, अर्थात मानवी रूपातील पाणी वाहकांचे चित्र आपल्या समोर उभे करण्याचा हा प्रयत्न. एकेकाळी देवदूत म्हणून ओळख मिळालेले हे चेहरे विलक्षण गतीने शहरच्या विस्मृतींचा एक भाग होत आहेत.

मुंबईच्या जुन्या परिसरात, बकऱ्याच्या चामडीपासून बनलेल्या पाण्याच्या पिशव्या म्हणजेच पखाल आणि असंख्य तहानलेल्यांची तहान शमविणाऱ्या समाजाचा वारसा, वजन वाहून जड झालेल्या आपल्या खांद्यावर वाहणारे काही पांथस्थ फिरत असत.


Pछायाचित्र आणि कथा मांडणी: मोहमद अस्लम सैयद कथा: मिनाझ अन्सारी (विशेष साहाय्य मोहमद अस्लम सैयद) पार्श्वध्वनी: मोहमद अस्लम सैयद
Source: wikicommons

This is a story of a community, who, at one time, played a very vital role in the city – the role of providing at the doorstep of every home, shop and office, a commodity more precious than food, clothing and shelter – water.


They belonged to the Rajasthani clan known by the name ‘Bhistee‘. They played an important role during the British Raj. Every British army contingent had a group of Bhistees. They were in charge of the vital task of providing drinking water to every soldier in the battalion.

Source: wikicommons

Besides this, they were often spotted with their leather water carrier, on streets and nodes of Bombay. They watered the streets to reduce the dust and quench the thirst of travellers along the way.

British writer Rudyard Kipling dedicated a poem ‘Ganga Din’ to the Bhishtees.


Time flew and many parts of Bombay were provided with piped water on tap. Over a period of time the British left the country and so did their armies. However, the Bhistees continued to live and work in Bombay for many decades thereafter.

Areas like Null Bazaar, Minara Masjid, Dongri experienced scarcity of piped water supply. There was no dearth of the thirsty on the busy streets packed with shops.

The Bhistees were called upon to supply water for family events.

The goatskin water bag (mashq) lent a unique flavour to the water.

Some more time went by and these areas were taken over by water tankers.

The water supply needs were also fulfilled by plastic
packaged water containers.

Soon, the original Bhistee community faded out of the city...

But they left behind their trade and craftsmanship of making goatskin water bags (mashqs) with another set of people.

Today, if one wanders around the Minara Masjid area, one can find five to six men selling water in mashqs.

A community belonging to Katihar, a town in Bihar, carry forward the tradition of selling water in mashqs.

Every day, early morning, the water from a well is filled into tanks and from there into the mashq.

They supply water for washing shop floors and fulfilling the water needs of the pavement dwellers for drinking and bathing.

After a hard day at work, they earn 300-400 Rs per day by selling water at Rs 10 a bucket.

Yunus is an important link in this chain.
He is the only person in Mumbai who knows the craft of making and repairing
goatskin bags or mashqs.

Every 3-4 months the water carriers take their mashq to Yunus for maintenance and repair.

Without Yunus, it would be difficult for the rest of the mashq-carriers to survive in this trade.

There are other types of water carriers here– those selling water from metal pots, plastic cans and tankers on handcarts.

They are mostly Brahmins from Rajasthan and operate in the Kalbadevi area.

Collectively, these water carriers supply water to thousands every day. In a way, they perform the role of a human pipeline.

Despite the important role they play in quenching the thirst of many, they are unknown and unseen to a vast majority of the city.

Most of us do not understand their problems. In fact we do not know of their existence. They are lost in the chaos and the glitz and glamour of the city.

Today, most homes, shops and offices are equipped with taps. Most buildings have their own overhead water storage tanks.

We do not feel the need for a Bhishtee because water is easily accessible to us.

But one question is truly noteworthy- With the growing population in cities and the scarcity of water in many major cities across the globe, will there be a point where we will revert back to the Bhistees to quench our thirst? Only time will tell…

The name Bhistee is derived from the Urdu word ‘Bahisht’ which means ‘Paradise’