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article imageIndia's last water men fight tide of history

By Bhuvan BAGGA (AFP)     May 11, 2017 in World

Shakeel Ahmad wanders the cramped alleyways of Old Delhi offering water from a goat hide canteen slung over his shoulder, a centuries-old service welcomed by thirsty vendors toiling under the baking Indian sun.

Ahmad is one of last Bhishtis, a community of water carriers fading into history after generations of quenching thirsts in Delhi's old quarter.

Bhishtis -- water carriers -- have been supplying businesses  pilgrims and passersby with swigs from...
Bhishtis -- water carriers -- have been supplying businesses, pilgrims and passersby with swigs from their swollen canteens since the Mughals ruled India, an era before piped water sounded the death knell for their trade.
Chandan KHANNA, AFP

Bhishtis have been supplying businesses, pilgrims and passersby with swigs from their swollen canteens since the Mughals ruled India, an era before piped water sounded the death knell for their trade.

"I spent my childhood doing this. My ancestors too spent theirs," Ahmad told AFP at the footsteps of Jama Masjid, a towering mosque built at the height of the Mughal empire.

"Now I am the last. I'm not sure if my children, if the next generation, will do this or not."

India's bhishtis -- water carriers -- earn just 30 rupees or US$0.50 per 30 litre canteen.
India's bhishtis -- water carriers -- earn just 30 rupees or US$0.50 per 30 litre canteen.
Dominique FAGET, AFP

For centuries, Bhishtis have sourced water from an underground basin deep beneath the warrens and Mughal-era monuments of Old Delhi -- a bustling quarter hidden away from the modern Indian capital that grew up around it.

Inside a small Sufi shrine, Ahmad -- like countless Bhishtis before him -- draws water from a deep well, filling his large goat skin canteen known as a mashaq to the very brim.

"The water in this well hasn't stopped since it was dug," said Ahmad, gesturing to the murky depths of the pit below.

Animal skins used by Indian water carrier Shakeel Ahmad to hold the fluid as he hawks it around Delh...
Animal skins used by Indian water carrier Shakeel Ahmad to hold the fluid as he hawks it around Delhi's old quarters.
Dominique FAGET, AFP

"It dried up just once when construction began on the Delhi metro... But then it just came back on its own."

It is back-breaking work hauling a full mashaq around the crowded, cobbled streets in the blistering Indian summer, where daytime temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees celsius.

A full canteen carries roughly 30 litres -- enough to earn a Bhishti a mere 30 rupees ($0.50), a pittance for the hard labour involved.

"I spent my childhood doing this. My ancestors too spent theirs. Now I am the last " water...
"I spent my childhood doing this. My ancestors too spent theirs. Now I am the last," water carrier Shakeel Ahmad tells AFP
Chandan KHANNA, AFP

"My children will find it difficult to do this job. I am the last (of my family)," Ahmad said.

The advent of piped water, and cheap bottled options, has decimated their business, but there's still a handful calling out for Ahmad as he treads the lanes with his dripping flagon.

Old shopkeepers, parched in the midday sun, cup their hands for a mouthful of water, while street vendors have him fill cooling units and drink buckets to ward off the worst of the heat.

For centuries  Bhishtis have sourced water from an underground basin deep beneath the warrens and Mu...
For centuries, Bhishtis have sourced water from an underground basin deep beneath the warrens and Mughal-era monuments of Old Delhi -- a bustling quarter hidden away from the modern Indian capital that grew up around it.
Dominique FAGET, AFP

Problems with the piped water supply -- not an unusual occurrence in the creaky old neighbourhood -- is a godsend for Ahmad, even if a nuisance for everyone else.

"When they have their regular supply, no one bothers to call," Ahmad said.

Business may not be booming but tourists and pilgrims still double take when they see the elderly Bhishti in his white Muslim tunic and prayer cap carting his water skin, a flashback to a bygone era.

"Many people are amazed to see that this profession still exists... that something from the time of the kings still exists. They are surprised and happy to see us," he said.

-- To accompany video by Agnes Bun and pictures by Chandan Khanna --

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