In the scorching summer heat, the well in one corner of Lakhtokia Masjid No 2 is like an oasis. It’s unusually cool and Monoj Shah heaves a sigh of relief as he places the holder carrying two tin containers. He leans on the well looks at the clear water at the well and says, “The water is amazingly clean. I draw water from the well and supply it to localities in and around the busy market place,” says Monoj.
Originally from Motihari in Bihar, he has been working as a ‘paniwala’ from a few water sources including the mosques in and around the area since the past 2-3 years. It’s a busy time of the day for him and he has no time to sit and talk. He hurriedly draws water and rushes off.
His companion Ram Prasad Shah, also from Motihari in Bihar squats in the corner and takes a break. He has been working as a paniwala for the past 10-12 years and draws water from the wells in the three mosques – Kamarpatty and Lakhtokia Masjid No 1 and 2. He distributes water in two tin containers slung on a pole on his shoulders in the shops, residences and other establishments in the area. The price of the water varies according to the distance and if he has to climb stairs, the price goes up. He makes upto Rs 200-300 per day. Some pay immediately, some pay on a weekly or monthly basis.
The age-old wells in the premises of the mosques in one of the oldest Muslim localities in Assam are Ram Prasad’s source of livelihood. He looks down at the well and says, “The water is clean and can be drunk directly.” After working hard the whole day, he slinks into his bed in a small rented room nearby. He saves every penny he earns for his family who lives in his native village. “I go home 2-3 times in a year unless there is an emergency. I have the freedom to move. I don’t have a government job that I have to take permission or apply for leave from anyone,” he smiles.
Atowar Hussain, muezzin of Lakhtokia Masjid No 2 says, “The well is for community purposes. It has always been used for community purposes. I have seen it since my childhood. However, now it is drying up because of several deep bore wells in and around the mosque.” In fact, Islamic Law talks about fair and equitable distribution of water in the community. Water should be freely available to all, and any Muslim who withholds unneeded water sins against God: “No one can refuse surplus water without sinning against God and against man.” The Prophetic Traditions say that among the three people God will ignore on the Day of Resurrection there will be “the man who, having water in excess of his needs refuses it to a traveler.” (Reported by Bukhari)
Paniwallas have been an integral part of the lives of the people in and around Lakhtokia since time immemorial. Many have come and left. “The paniwallas keep changing. I remember a few in my childhood, some died, some left after they became too old to carry water,” recalls Ezhar Hussain, 70. He remembers in those days, the paniwalas used to supply water to residences and hotels. “We used to ask them if we ever needed water in bulk especially during weddings and other functions. Earlier, there was no tap in the wuzukhana. They used to fill in the tanks. 20-25 paniwalas used to supply water every day to anybody who needs water,” he adds.
Interestingly, the paniwallas had a special bonding with the newly-wed brides of Lakhtokia. Sazida Begum says, “When I first came here as a bride, we were asked to be stringent with our water use. I found it very difficult to adjust. In fact, I was used to using water freely for cleaning and washing clothes. Then the paniwalas came to my rescue.”
Nazmi Ara Begum, in her sixties now is from Sivasagar in upper Assam. When she came as a newly-wed bride to Lakhtokia she used to be irked by the erratic water supply by the municipality. “People used to rush out to collect water. It used to be chaotic. I used to depend on the regular paniwala,” she narrates.
The fact that water has no religion has been depicted by the paniwallas and their age-old bond with the mosques. Anthropologist Dr Farzana Begum and a native of Lakhtokia says, “If you fail to get water from all other sources, you can always rely on the paniwalas from the local mosque to bring water to your doorsteps. The water is used by all the people residing or doing business in Lakhtokia. I have seen the paniwalas provide water to all communities — their households and shops which is used for drinking and other purposes.”
The residents of Lakhtokia and the paniwalas share an endearing relationship. The Lakhtokia Masjid No 1, located nearby is not less than 200 years old. “My great grandfather was buried here. The paniwalas were here since the time my forefathers existed,” says Mohidul Islam, former president of the Masjid Committee. Many people collect water from shops and establishments irrespective of their caste, creed and religion.
The mosque also opens its cold cooler water for everyone, especially during summers. Masrur Hussain, Secretary of Lakhtokia Masjid No 1 says, “Water is free for all. People even take water from the cooler. Our century old well is also like the well of zam zam. It never dries up.”
Water plays an important role in Islam. Water is the primary element that existed even before the heavens and the earth did. “Purification through wuzu (ablution) and istenja (cleansing) is an obligatory component of the Islamic prayer ritual,” says Nurul Islam Laskar, an activist.
All medieval mosques had an ablution hauz (tank). If size was smaller than it prescribed that they had running water. Water to the tanks were supplied from the wells. “In case of Jama Masjid, they were supplied by Persian wheels,” informs Rana Safvi, a historian.