Home > Calcutta (Kolkata), General, Kolkata (Calcutta) Vanishing Profession, Vanishing Profession > Bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata) ~ A vanishing tribe

Bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata) ~ A vanishing tribe

Bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata)

~ A Vanishing Tribe ~

Also see: Vanishing Professions of Kolkata (Calcutta)

“The finest man I knew

Was our regimental Bhisti, Gunga Din.”

Gunga Din (1892) poem by Rudward Kipling

Bhisti (water carrier) with Masak (goat skin bag), Bow Barracks, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Bhisti (water carrier) with Masak (goat skin bag), Bow Barracks, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Once an indispensable part of Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) water supply of both domestic and public purposes  today the bhistis are  fast vanishing tribe.

Bhisti fills his Masak, Bow Baracks, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Bhisti fills his Masak, Bow Baracks, Calcutta (Kolkata)

The word bhisti probably originated from the Persian word bihisht, meaning paradise. Western and Central images of paradise are incomplete without the depiction of rivers and gardens. Perhaps for those without the supply of pipped water the bhistis seemed to be a messenger from paradise! During the British rule the bhistis were known for their loyalty and efficiency and have been made immortal in Rudward Kiplimg’s poem Gungan Din.

Bhistis were once Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) employees, but soon they lost their prime position as suppliers of water after carriages bearing water were introduced. Plumbing only made things worse. But thanks to the CMC and the ancient plumbing in many buildings, water did not reach all houses regularly. So bhistis became indispensable.

Bhisti with Masak, Bow Barrack, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Bhisti with Masak, Bow Barrack, Calcutta (Kolkata)

Not very long ago, bhistis were a familiar sight in central Calcutta and the Park Circus areas as they filled up buckets and tubs in the huge bathrooms of crumbling buildings occupied by Anglo-Indians and Chinese.

Now that most of these houses have been replaced by modern apartment blocks, bhistis too are on their way out. “Tullu” pumps have taken their place.

Today a handful of bhistis operates in a few pockets in Calcutta (Kolkata). The Bow Barracks, in Bou Bazar area of Central Calcutta (Kolkata), is one such area where bhisits are still seen with their masak, goat skin bag. Bow Barracks was constructed for the World War I soldiers and today houses a very diversified Calcutta (Kolkata) population of Anglo Indians, Chinese and Muslim population.

Cast Iron sculptur of nasak (goat skin bag),City Centre Saltlake.

Cast Iron sculptur of masak (goat skin bag),City Centre Saltlake.

Today the bhisits supply metha pani, that is water supplied by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) at fixed hours. Many consider the water best for cooking and baths and thus the bhisits are still in demand. In Bow Barrack areas Bhistis can still be spotted during the morning (6 – 7am) and late afternoon (3 – 4pm) walking briskly with their water filled masaks, with the century old red coloured barrack buildings in the backdrop.

One of the few surviving members of the bhisti tribe of Calcutta (Kolkata) says “We are in dire straits. Neighbourhoods have become more crowded, so more and more people use the roadside tap for bathing and drinking water. So we hardly ever get the chance to reach the tap. Most tubewells are sealed and this has pushed us to the edge.”

The bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata) will soon be history and all that will remain is a cast iron sculptor of masaks hanging from a bamboo stand at the entrance of City Centre at Saltlake (popularly known as CCI). Calcutta’s generation next, unaware of the bhisits and masak, will walk past it considering it as a form abstract modern art.

Reference:

  1. October 24, 2012 at 1:53 AM

    This is one of your most interesting blog

  2. May 6, 2013 at 3:50 PM

    while I think this was inevitable with the advent of modern plumbing…..something should be done to preserve the heritage too!!

    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

    • May 7, 2013 at 7:41 AM

      Dear “My Unfinished Life” there has always been a conflict between development and heritage. Its true the bhistis will die a slow death but plans can be made to promote them as a heritage tourist attraction.

  3. May 6, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    they still are ??? I just the one in City centre one .. the one which is on the post as well.. I have heard though they are still there towards Central area and Mallick bazar and all.. nice post !🙂

    • May 7, 2013 at 7:44 AM

      Dear “My Say” the bhistis are still parts of central Calcutta. You can still see them in the Mullick Bazar, Park Circus, Bow Barracks, New Market areas in early morning and late afternoon.

      • May 7, 2013 at 8:38 AM

        great🙂 I will hunt them down this weekend🙂

  4. May 7, 2013 at 6:11 AM

    This was news to me. It’s nice to know about the bhistis.
    If I’d not read this post, I’d also have walked past that structure and thought it modern art.

    • May 7, 2013 at 7:45 AM

      Thanks D Nanbiar, Calcutta is a wonderful place full of surprises and hidden gems.

  5. vishalrathod76
    May 8, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    Nice Pictures . Never heard of these bhistis.
    Travel India

    • May 10, 2013 at 10:40 PM

      Thanks Vishal, Bhistis were once integral parts of all major Indian cities. There are lots of old photos of Bhistis in Delhi.

  6. rajmita
    August 21, 2013 at 10:32 PM

    gud article…… informative…i too hav seen dem in some areas of park circus…. the last few lines was really sensitive and heart rending for emotionally attached kolkatans like us..

  7. June 4, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    Also see http://bongomoni.blogspot.in/2014/02/blog-post.html how literature remembers them

  8. Krishanu Dutta
    October 16, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    I have seen such men so many times during my walks around the barracks. Thank you so much for enlightening us about them. And the CC Salt Lake sculpture makes sense now.🙂

    • October 30, 2014 at 3:35 PM

      Thanks Krishanu, it is always encouraging to receive encouraging comments like this.

  9. Manish singh
    January 5, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    is there any scientific reason why they carry water in goatskin or it is just for their heritage purpose

    • January 5, 2016 at 11:35 AM

      Not very sure Manish, in those days there was no plastic containers so got skin bags were a lighter option than metallic containers. Probably today the Bhistis are carrying on there age old tradition.

  10. January 5, 2016 at 12:23 PM

    Never knew something like this existed! Wow!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers,
    Rajiv

    • January 5, 2016 at 12:33 PM

      Thanks Rajiv, Kolkata is full of hidden treasures, I plan to blog about all of them.

      • January 5, 2016 at 2:51 PM

        That would be wonderful. And yes, Kolkata never ceases to surprise! Would look forward to your upcoming posts.

        Cheers,
        Rajiv

  11. Moumita Banik
    January 5, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    Never heard of bhistis. Your blogs are always a rich source of knowledge and information.

  12. Subhodeep Das
    September 26, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    It is very sad that no one really cares about these people….. Really heart wrenching article sir…..

  13. September 26, 2016 at 10:51 PM

    Reblogged this on aadildesai.

  1. March 27, 2014 at 11:34 PM

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