City Monument – Goatskin Mashaks, Old Delhi
Finding lost time.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Delhi is changing furiously and yet, a precious souvenir of our vanished past has miraculously survived in a corner of the Walled City.
A sidewall at Mushtaqeem Chai Stall, outside Jama Masjid, has long leathery bags hanging from metal hooks. These are goatskin water bags called mashak. Centuries ago, water-sellers roamed along the labyrinthine alleys of Shahjahanabad selling cold water in these mashaks. You might have stumbled upon them in your history books. Mughal emperor Humayun was said to be once drowning in Ganga and was rescued by a water carrier, Nizam, who gave him his mashak to swim over the furious waters. Which means the Mughal empire’s long life became possible because of the humble mashak.
In fact, the Old Delhi street of Sakke Wali Gali used to house a community that made its living by selling water in this leather bag. That street still exists, as well as the descendants of its water-sellers. However, they deal in spare car parts today.
That makes these handfuls of mashaks at Mushtaqeem’s stall as precious as museum exhibits except that they are still used daily. The tea stall stands beside an old well. The water bags belong to brothers Jameel, Khaleel, Shakeel and Aqeel. Every morning, one or all of them are seen drawing water from this well and casually filling it into the mashaks. The water is then sprinkled on the dusty ground outside. During the day the brothers sell chilled water to the thirsty bazaar crowd from these bags.
Smoking a beedi beside his goatskin heirlooms, Jameel says that his “baap, dada, pardada” followed the same profession, and that it passed down to him through a long chain of these forefathers. Curiously, the family has stayed on with mashaks when Old Delhi’s others mashakwallas abandoned theirs a long time ago for more lucrative professions. The brothers though are not from Delhi. They came from Moradabad, and have been in the capital since their childhood.
Jameel could not tell the exact age of his mashaks except that they are “from the time of badshahs (kings).” He says that this hereditary occupation would end with him and his brothers. Their sons have opted for other trades.
In any case, you ought to come here in the morning around 7am as the brothers draw water from the well. It is surreal to witness how something that has gone extinct elsewhere is still treated as an everyday utility—so effortlessly linking the old time with the new.
Proust’s water bottle