Bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata) ~ A vanishing tribe
Bhistis of Calcutta (Kolkata)
~ A Vanishing Tribe ~
“The finest man I knew
Was our regimental Bhisti, Gunga Din.”
Gunga Din (1892) poem by Rudward Kipling
Once an indispensable part of Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) water supply of both domestic and public purposes today the bhistis are fast vanishing tribe.
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.
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Now that most of these houses have been replaced by modern apartment blocks, bhistis too are on their way out.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.
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.
- A You Tube video on Bhisti
- “Last days of Gunga Din” by Soumitra Das, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 3 Jan 2010