THUGS, FAKIRS, AND NAUTCH DANCERS

The most interesting classes among the many kinds of priests, monks and other people, who make religion a profession in India, are the thugs, fakirs and nautch girls, who are supposed to devote their lives and talents to the service of the gods. There are several kinds of fakirs and other religious mendicants in India, about five thousand in number, most of them being nomads, wandering from city to city and temple to temple, dependent entirely upon the charity of the faithful. They reward those who serve them with various forms of blessings; give them advice concerning all the affairs of life from the planting of their crops to the training of their children. They claim supernatural powers to confer good and invoke evil, and the curse of a fakir is the last misfortune that an honest Hindu cares to bring upon himself, for it means a failure of his harvests, the death of his cattle by disease, sickness in his family and bad luck in everything that he undertakes. Hence these holy men, who are familiars of the gods, and are believed to spend most of their time communicating with them in some mysterious way about the affairs of the world, are able to command anything the people have to give, and nobody would willingly cross their shadows or incur their displeasure. The name is pronounced as if it were spelled "fah-keer."

These religious mendicants go almost naked, usually with nothing but the smallest possible breech clout around their loins, which the police require them to wear; they plaster their bodies with mud, ashes and filth; they rub clay, gum and other substances into their hair to give it an uncouth appearance. Sometimes they wear their hair in long braids hanging down their backs like the queue of a Chinaman; sometimes in short braids sticking out in every direction like the wool of the pickaninnies down South. Some of them have strings of beads around their necks, others coils of rope round them. They never wear hats and usually carry nothing but a small brass bowl, in imitation of Buddha, which is the only property they possess on earth. They are usually accompanied by a youthful disciple, called a "chela," a boy of from 10 to 15 years of age, who will become a fakir himself unless something occurs to change his career.

Many of the fakirs endeavor to make themselves look as hideous as possible. They sometimes whitewash their faces like clowns in circuses; paint lines upon their cheeks and draw marks under their eyes to give them an inhuman appearance. At certain seasons of the year they may clothe themselves in filthy rags for the time being as an evidence of humility. Most of them are very thin and spare of flesh, which is due to their long pilgrimages and insufficient nourishment. They sleep wherever they happen to be. They lie down on the roadside or beneath a column of a temple, or under a cart, or in a stable. Sometimes kindly disposed people give them beds, but they have no regular habits; they sleep when they are sleepy, rest when they are tired and continue their wanderings when they are refreshed.

About the time the people of the country are breakfasting in the morning the chela starts out with the brass bowl and begs from house to house until the bowl is filled with food, when he returns to wherever his master is waiting for him and they share its contents between them. Again at noon and again at night the chela goes out on similar foraging expeditions and conducts the commissary department in that way. The fakir himself is supposed never to beg; the gods he worships are expected to take care of him, and if they do not send him food he goes without it. It is a popular delusion that fakirs will not accept alms from anyone for any purpose, for I have considerable personal experience to the contrary. I have offered money to hundreds of them and have never yet had it refused. A fakir will snatch a penny as eagerly as any beggar you ever saw, and if the coin you offer is smaller than he expects or desires he will show his disapproval in an unmistakable manner.