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This article was written in 1916 when conditions were different. Even in
1916 its contents related only to Central India and did not claim to be true
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From The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India

By R. V. Russell

Of The Indian Civil Service

Superintendent Of Ethnography, Central Provinces

Assisted By Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, Extra Assistant Commissioner

Macmillan And Co., Limited, London, 1916.

NOTE 1: The 'Central Provinces' have since been renamed Madhya Pradesh.

NOTE 2: While reading please keep in mind that all articles in this series have been scanned from the original book. Therefore, footnotes have got inserted into the main text of the article, interrupting the flow. Readers who spot these footnotes gone astray might like to shift them to their correct place.


A small Muhammadan caste of water-bearers. Only 26 Bhishtis were shown in the Central Provinces in 1 90 1 and 278 in 1891. The tendency of the lower Muhammadan castes, as they obtain some education, is to return themselves simply as Muhammadans, the caste name being considered derogatory. The Bhishtis are, however, a regular caste numbering over a lakh of persons in India, the bulk of whom belong to the United Provinces. Many of them are converts from Hinduism, and they combine Hindu and Muhammadan practices. They have gotras or exogamous sections, the names of which indicate the Hindu origin of their members, as Huseni Brahman, Samri Chauhan, Bahmangour and others.

They prohibit marriage within the section and within two degrees of relationship on the mother's side. Marriages are performed by the Muham- madan ritual or Nikah, but a Brahman is sometimes asked to fix the auspicious day, and they erect a marriage-shed. The bridegroom goes to the bride's house riding on a horse, and when he arrives drops Rs. 1-4 into a pot of water held by a woman. The bride whips the bridegroom's horse with a switch made of flowers. During the marriage the bride sits inside the house and the bridegroom in the shed outside.

An agent or Vakil with two witnesses goes to the bride and asks her whether she consents to marry the bridegroom, and when she gives her consent, as she always does, they go out and formally communi- cate it to the Kazi. The dowry is then settled, and the bond of marriage is sealed. But when the parents of the bride are poor they receive a bride -price of Rs. "i^o^ from which they pay the dowry.

The Bhishtis worship their leather bag {inashk) as a sort of fetish, and burn incense before it on Fridays.^ The traditional occupation of the Bhishti is to supply water, and he is still engaged in this and other kinds of domestic service. The name is said to be derived from the Persian bihisht, 'paradise,' and to have been given to them on account of the relief which their ministrations afforded to the thirsty soldiery." Perhaps, too, the grandiloquent name was applied partly in derision, ' Crooke's Tribes and Castes, art. Bhishti. ^ Elliott's Metnoi7-s of Ihe Noflh-PVestern Provinces, i. p. 191. II nmsfrri 299 like similar titles given to other menial servants. 'I'hey are also known as Mashki o/ Pakliali, after their leathern water-bag. The leather bag is a distinctive sign of the Bhishti, but when he puts it away he may be recognised from the piece of red cloth which he usually wears round his waist.

There is an interesting legend to the effect that the Bhishti who saved the Emperor Humayun's life at Chausa, and was rewarded by the tenure of the Imperial throne for half a day, employed his short lease of power by providing for his family and friends, and caused his leather bag to be cut up into rupees, which were gilded and stamped with the record of his date and reign in order to perpetuate its memory.

The story of the Bhishti obtaining his name on account of the solace which he afforded to the Muhammadan soldiery finds a parallel in the case of the English army : The uniform 'e wore Was nothin' much before, An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind, For a piece o' twisty rag An' a goatskin water-bag Was all the field-equipment 'e could find. With 'is mussick on 'is back, 'E would skip with our attack. An' watch us till the bugles made ' Retire,' An' for all 'is dirty 'ide 'E was white, clear white, inside When 'e went to tend the wounded under fire.'-^ An excellent description of the Bhishti as a household servant is contained in Eha's Behind the Bungalow'^ from which the following extract is taken : " If you ask : Who is the Bhishti ? I will tell you. Bihisht in the Persian tongue means Paradise, and a Bihishtee is therefore an inhabitant of Paradise, a cherub, a seraph, an angel of mercy. He has no wings ; the painters have misconceived him ; but his back is bowed down with the burden of a great goat-skin swollen to bursting with the elixir of life. 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 ^ Crooke's Tribes atid Castes, ii. p. Ballads, ' Gunga Din.' 100.

Thacker and Co., London. " Kudyard Kipling, Barrack- Roooi 300 BHISHTI PART of grass has given up the struggle for life, when the very roses smell only of dust, and all day long the roaming 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 straightway, with a life- reviving gurgle, the stream called thandha pdni gushes forth, and plant and shrub lift up their heads and the garden smiles again.

The dust also on the roads is laid, and a grateful incense rises from the ground, the sides of the water chatti grow dark and moist and cool themselves in the hot air, and through the dripping interstices of the khaskJias tattie a chilly fragrance creeps into the room, causing the mercury in the thermometer to retreat from its proud place. I like the Bhishti and respect him. As a man he is temperate and contented, eating bdjri bread and slaking his thirst with his own element. And as a servant he is laborious and faithful, rarely shirking his work, seeking it out rather. For example, we had a bottle-shaped filter of porous stoneware, standing in a bucket of water which it was his duty to fill daily ; but the good man, not content with doing his bare duty, took the plug out of the filter and filled it too.

And all the station knows how assiduously he fills the rain-gauge." With the con- struction of water -works in large stations the Bhishti is losing his occupation, and he is a far less familiar figure to the present generation of Anglo-Indians than to their pre- decessors.

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