India's beggarsProfessional and amateur

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

With every class and caste in evidence on the ghats and streets of Varanasi, from Brahmin priests to the Untouchable Doms, it is natural enough to find what, to Western eyes, are members of the very lowest level of society. They congregate for the most part around the steps leading down to the river from Dasaswamedh Ghat. Beggars is not necessarily the right word to apply to them, because the mendicant lifestyle is one which has an honourable position in Indian life. Many orthodox Hindus, after doing their sacred duty by raising a family, will then persue the fourth ashrama or stage of life by becoming a saddhu, a homeless ascetic, and following a path of renunciation, penance, and austerity. The saffron robes of the saddhu, symbolic of the blood of Parvati, the consort of Shiva, mark these mendicants out from the more mundane beggars.

Although Varanasi abounds in both, it is the more ordinary beggars which are the more numerous. They are all cast in the same toothless, skin-and-bone mould, each of them bearing the same pitiful expression, nurtured to break hearts. They sit bow-backed and motionless by their begging bowls and tin cups, silently pleading for alms, which are given by perhaps one in ten of the passing tourists and city-dwellers: the chink of a few paise, the chunk of larger coins, the sash of a handful of uncooked rice, all gratefully accepted, repaid with gappy smiles and blessings. General advice for tourists is not to give money to beggars, but my own general rule is to follow the suit of the local people. The Indian tourists, outnumbering by far the Western ones, generally donate rice, or sometimes a few paise. It wouldn't be wise to give more, or the donor would be destitute himself in next to no time. If it isn't the beggars at Dasaswamedh Ghat it is the walking wounded in the streets of Godaulia, young men hobbling along on crutches and desperately waving the stumps of their arms at passing tourists. Occasionally they pull along a cart bearing a second and similarly afflicted man, whose feetless legs and handless arms will be swathed in bandages, his begging cup clutched awkwardly between his forearms. Leprosy is no longer the problem in India it once was and such injuries are hard to come by in the normal run of things. Have these beggars deliberately self-mutilated in an effort to improve their earning power? It is entirely possible. For many, begging is a part-time activity - especially agricultural workers, during the off-season - though for many, it is a livelihood. A survey into begging in another of India's cities, Hyderabad, reveals that the most successful beggar can earn up to Rs4000 per month (the national average is Rs3000), Rs1200 on average.

But for all that, it is hard to refuse the constant pleas for alms. A few paise mean nothing to me. And India's inadequate welfare system means that, for some, there is no other way to survive.

Read on...

Read the next article about the importunists of India.

I check out of my guesthouse in Agra at the break of day. A cycle rickshaw man isn't hard to find: it is simply a matter of choosing one at random from the hatful that find me. Importunists, I come to call them, and all those like them, an ilk that every tourist town abounds in. My dictionary defines importune as "to solicit with troublesome persistence", and troublesomely persistent with their solicitations they most certainly are, be they shoe shiners, masseurs, postcard sellers, marble inlayers, or just plain rickshaw and autorickshaw wallahs.

Go back...

Read the previous article about a roadside hawker.

I stop to watch a man across the street, standing by the kerbside, hawking up phlegm. In every city I had visited I had seen men such as he, kneading their stomachs rhythmically and making harsh yet controlled noises in their throats as they clear their lung tracts of fluid. For many, it is a routine to start and end each and every day. I had never appreciated their efforts before, not quite understanding what was wrong with them. Were they ill? Some kind of disease? The answer is yes; but the illness is the city, and its contagion is inescapable.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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