Fakirs, masters of endurance

That of the fakir is one of the most enigmatic −and indeed less known− figures in the world of variety shows and illusionism. Austere, bearded, bad-tempered look and totally absent from earthly affairs so as to endure an inhuman pain… This is usually the image we have of them, and not that it is too far from reality. However, what do we know about fakirs? Are they a simple folkloric act, or hide something bigger we can’t appreciate? Where do they come from? What do they want to demonstrate, these characters? Mystics of mysterious powers or mere entertainers with easy tricks? Maybe best we can do is start from the beginning…

It is commonly accepted that the word fakir comes from two archaic terms: the Persian Faqīr (poor) and the Arabic Faqr (poverty). With this etymological origin it is not difficult at all to imagine why the first fakirs, who emerged in India, were mendicant Muslim ascetics (morabito). The Indian continent is the land of the mystics (sadhus), for whom the only interest in life is to attain the samadhu, the moment of perfect union between the human soul and Brahma, the creator god of the universe, according to the Hindu religion. As for its mystical side, and the reason why they became such a famous figure in popular culture, the fakirs tend to submit themselves to rigorous and intense physical practices in order to achieve spiritual control over each vital function of the human body. In India they are venerated as holy men and receive all social respect. On the contrary, in the Muslim worldview a fakir is someone who has nothing, neither trade nor benefit. A simple beggar…

The sweet masochistic nap of the fakir…

Among its many… “practices” we can find levitations, dragging heavy objects, walking through burning embers, inserting their limbs inside pots of boiling oil as if nothing, self-stabbing using sharp pieces without flinching and, of course, the classic among classics: lying on nailbeds of or carpets made of broken glasses. Originally, fakirs travelled all throughout the country, visiting villages, dressed simply with a loincloth and practicing miracles, curing diseases and entertaining people in exchange for alms or food. This is the typical picture card, surely, that was recorded in the mind of the English colonizers when they exported the fakir concept to the West at the end of the 17th century. Maybe that’s why today we consider them as circus artists or magicians who make their living doing just magic tricks. As we have seen, a representation far away from its authentic origins: more transcendent than earthly and, no doubt, more spiritual than artistic!