− Russia, Asia and Africa
Bombay Beggars and Criers 1892
The ‘K.R.’ of this book’s preface was the Indian writer Krishnanath Raghunathji, who later wrote The Hindu Temples of Bombay and contributed to The Indian Antiquary journal. Raghunathji expresses regret that he wasn’t able to photograph the beggars and traders he describes in exhaustive detail. I’ve included some photographs from Forbes and Watson’s 1868 The People of India – sometimes they’re directly relevant to the adjacent text, more often they’re not. Both works, however, share an enthusiasm for listing and categorising their human subjects.
“A beggar begs that never begged before.” - Shak.
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In publishing the Third Edition of my book, I beg to thank the public for their appreciation of my humble efforts to interest them in some of the obscure members of humanity. I have incorporated in this book several extracts from the Bombay Gazzetteer which is a mine of valuable information and I beg to express my heartfelt acknowledgments to the author Dr. J. M. Campbell, C.S., C.L.E, for the help I have thus derived from the book. I regret, I could not carry out my intention of publishing the book, with illustrations, as the people that had to be photographed could not all be got together for the purpose, but earnestly hope that should another edition be called for, I should be able to give the illustrations.
As elsewhere, India gave birth to men of wealth and position, and numbers of these people fed, clothed, and even bore hardships on account of their beggars. The result was that he who gave the most died leaving behind him the greatest number of beggars. The practice of alms-giving has existed from a very early age, at least from the time of Manu. Nearly a tenth of the population have been beggars, and instead of being ashamed of this, beggary is deemed a condition worthy to be sought after and followed. There are even some among this class of people who will not go to the trouble of seeking charity, because they know they will be provided with the necessities of life by people who look upon them as having sacrificed themselves for some social end, for –
“Brother, we have become a Gosavi, and abandoned everything. Patel build us here a chapel, bring plenty of bhang and tobacco, provide daily food for me, and send a sister to serve me.”
Thus these worthless and degraded members of society are encouraged in idleness by the ready supply of their wants. What is the use of labour, the beggars say, why work hard and get half a loaf, why not follow beggary as a profession? In Banaras, if a boy is told by his parents to go to school, his reply will sometimes be that, if again told to do so, he will join some of the many alms-houses (annakshatras). And when Khanderao Gaikvad died, an immense number of faqirs sat lamenting his death: they said that the Maharaja had induced them to beg, and now he was dead, and there was nothing left for them whereby to obtain their maintenance.
The Bombay beggars may be divided into two classes, the religious and the non-religious; they may also be subdivided into the Hindu religious and non-religious, the Musalman religious and non-religious, and others. The Hindu religious beggars are Vaishnavas, Saivas and the abominable Saktas, adorers of the goddesses. These classes may be distinguished by the kind of rosaries they sometimes carry, and by the marks on their foreheads, temples, arms, chest, and abdomen, which they either stamp with a wooden form for the purpose, or burn the skin with heated metal plates; and the Saktas by the application of red stuff to their foreheads between the eye-brows.
To give a list, says Beveridge, of the severities practised by the beggars would be to enumerate almost all the imaginable modes of torture; keeping the palms of the hands closed till the nails grow into the flesh on one side and reappear on the other; creeping along in twisted forms till permanent and unnatural distortion is produced; holding the arms upright till they lose their power of motion and become shrivelled; hanging over slow fires; burying in a living grave with only a small aperture to prevent suffocation; such are only a few of the modes of tormenting displayed by beggars who infest the country and extort alms either by the commiseration which their sufferings excite, or the desire to be rid of their filthy and disgusting presence. Naked bodies smeared with ashes of cowdung; hair hanging in locks matted together with filth; sometimes with living reptiles concealed in them; human skulls filled with filth; and human bones strung round the neck, – are among the devices used by those who are ambitious of the honour and greedy of the profit which it too often commands.
The following abstract of an account will show how some of these beggars do penance (Asiatic Researches, vol. V., p. 50). ‘At ten years of age,’ says the narrator, ‘I gave myself up to meditation and mortification, at twenty I left my home and lived in a cell doing penance for twelve years. Vermin or worms gnawed my flesh, of which the marks still remain. When the Raja opened the door of the cell, I said ‘Either take my curse or prepare for me a bed of spikes, which the Raja did, and this is the one I occupy. During the four months of winder I travel on this bed, while night and day water is let fall upon my head. For thirty-five years I travel on this bed, which is pulled by my disciples. At Surat, Collector Boddam built a house for me and provided me with something to subsist on.’
Hindu non-religious beggars of all classes are found begging in Bombay – Brahmans and Sudras, Mangs, Mahars, and Dhedas, principally the lame, the blind, the deformed, the leper and the decrepit, who prefer street-begging because their gains are large, and they have liberty to rove about and indulge in the luxuries of life.
The Musalman religious beggars are known as Jalals, Madaris, Rafais, Banavas, and Satis. Of these the last two closely resemble their Hindu congeners: they are known by the names of Tarikat, Sharikat, Marphat, and Hakikat, and their chief is called the Sarguro. They use rosaries of beads, practise jap tap, and apply ashes to their persons. Those of them who do not marry are held in high estimation; some marry and have families. The Musalman non-religious beggars are like those of the Hindus, they follow the profession of mendicants because their gains from it are large.
As an instance the following from the Indian Statesman well illustrates the fact:– ‘A curious instance of the life led by some of the Musalman mendicants was revealed by the researches of the officers of the Small Cause Court, Bombay. It would appear that a bailiff executed a writ of possession against a tenant, a Faquir, by name Sayad Ebrahim Sahib. The bailiff on entering the room was nearly stifled by the stench arising from filth in the shape of dead rats, dead fowls, a dead dog which was packed in a tin fiddle-case, and heaps of dust and cockroaches, living and dead. Money was found in bank notes, silver and copper up to the extent of Rs. 2,500. Surrounded by all this filth, with about nine or ten dogs for company, he looked on with a sad eye at the cleaning process, and begged to have his dead dog restored to him.’
The Bombay beggars generally start on their business in the mornings, and beg from early morn till one or two o’clock; and in the evenings from three till eleven at night. In the mornings they are given uncooked rice and in a few cases money, but in the evenings money, and scraps of food are offered to Mang, Mahar and Dhed beggars. These, the most wretched of the class, beg only in the evenings, after people have had their meals, for the remains of food. They are not satisfied with what they get by begging, but they also rake up the spots where the dinner plates and fragments of food are thrown, and lick the plates along with dogs and cats; the dogs barking at the beggar and the beggar driving away the dog with one hand and eating with the other. This is a most pitiful sight to look at. These beggars go with baskets and pieces of cloth, in which they collect the remains, and after eating a sufficient quantity sell the remainder to their more unfortunate brethren. The rice which the beggars collect they either sell to their customers at their houses or in the beggars (bhikar) bazar, where they sit in rows with their goods spread on pieces of cloth in front of them for disposal.
Parsis, says a writer in the Bombay Quarterly Review, do not allow the infirm, the helpless, the indigent or even the unfortunate of their community to loiter about the streets or to beg from door to door, but they are cared for by the Parsis themselves. No Parsi knows experimentally the humiliation of asking alms. None deprived of the power to work, none left destitute, has his misery aggravated by the apprehension of being reduced to beggar. However helpless, food and raiment at least, and a place to dwell in, he can always find amongst his own people.
Then there are what be termed reformed beggars – men, women, and children of all casts and creeds, and sometimes termed ‘lurks.’ There the sick-lurk; the fire-lurk, and petition or arja valas. There is no law as to who should assume the garb of a beggar. But any one that wishes may follow the profession without restriction. There are young and old, the poor and some that are well off, the diseased and sturdy, impudent, stout, healthy fellows who follow this miserable profession with great pride, and if one, says a writer in the Native Opinion, has the stump of an arm or of a leg to parade, he does so in the most conspicuous manner, with the idea that the public is bound to feed him. Others will lash their bellies, exclaiming in English, ‘Mamma no money, no khana; – showing their naked stomachs, ‘look belly, mamma; two eye blind mamma; give poor man one pice papa.’ And again, ‘Mamma nurse chhota baba, mamma nurse blind baba.’
But of late much of this noisy beggary is put down by the executive police, and there are not to be seen now-a-days, as ten years ago, rows of beggars lining both sides of the Esplanade road and other public streets. The number of these beggars, says a writer in the Bombay Quarterly Review, would inundate Bombay but for the longing which they feel individually or in numbers of visiting their homes. Generally the gains of a season are sufficient to take them to their native village, and maintain them there for some time amongst their relations. Yet for all this, Bombay has a pauper population which contributes largely to swell the number of beggars in her streets. The peculiar views and feelings which the mass of the native community entertain in reference to the virtue or goodness of alms-giving (dharma), leads them to the exercise of indiscriminate liberality; the prejudice in favour of such charity being so deep that it can scarcely be eradicated, and hence the attraction of many persons to Bombay from neighbouring and even remote districts. Were it not for the warmth of the climate, the simplicity and cheapness of their diet, this multitude of beggars would often feel such a want of proper clothing and food that they would soon be reduced to conditions of disease often terminating in death.
The sum required to support life is so very small that it can usually be obtained with facility by even the aged and infirm. At the Musalman eating houses a wheaten cake weighing more than half a pound may be purchased for half an anna. This cake with a little meat-curry twice a day forms the diet of many a labouring man here,– his two meals thus costing him one anna and a half. The ordinary meal of a poor Hindu is about a ser of rice with a little curry, and two such meals a day cost about one anna and a quarter per day. All who seek alms generally obtain as much as this, and so long as a really destitute person can go or crawl from door to door, and make himself heard, he is sure to obtain relief.