The blurring of the boundaries between ascetic ritual and street magic was not confined to live burials and chewing on red-hot charcoal. In the early 1930s, Lady Olive Crofton penned an unpublished memoir to counter the myth that there was more to being the wife of an ICS officer than the boredom of “bridge and club life”.

On a visit to Hyderabad, she was entertained by a group of Rafa’i fakirs, who she believed were descendants of the Persian sect of the Assassins. Other scholars such as Duncan MacDonald trace the sect back to the Rifa’ite fraternity founded in Baghdad in 1158 by Ahmad ar-Rifa’a. The fraternity migrated to Hyderabad in the late sixteenth century and eventually came under the protection of Hyderabad’s prime minister, Salar Jung III, “who often produced them for the entertainment of his guests at his luncheon parties”.

Crofton attended one such party at Salar Jung’s palace with a group of British sailors. After a sumptuous meal that many would later regret ingesting, they sat in a large circle in one of the palace courtyards. The Rafa’is arrived with an assortment of swords, daggers and other sharp instruments. Standing in the middle of the circle, the first placed the hilt of his sword on the ground, then leaning over it and with considerable force, drove the point of the blade deep into this stomach. He then walked around the circle with the sword embedded in his body, but without any signs of bleeding or discomfort.

The next drove a dagger through his neck until the point extended several inches on the other side. A third poked out his tongue and drove a knife through it, while another walked around with a dagger protruding upright from his skull, which quivered as he walked.

Wrote Crofton: “Horrible as these things were, I could not help watching the faces of the sailors with some amusement. They were hard fighting men who have been through all the horrors of the evacuation of Crete, but now their faces were white. Some hid their eyes and when the last Rafa’i appeared and gouged out one eye and then holding it in the palm of his hand, walked round the circle, before replacing it in its socket apparently uninjured, two of the men fainted dead away.”

Doctors had tried but failed to explain how the Rafai’s accomplished their feats, Crofton continued. “Hashish had something to do with it, but that was only the beginning, there was no explanation, and it wasn’t a case of delusion, these things really happened.”

The early twentieth-century scholar and author of Islam in India, Jafar Sharif, claimed the members of the sect were related to the Howling Dervishes of Turkey and Egypt, famous for their masochistic and bloody rituals. Referring to the Rafa’i, he wrote:

“All sorts of marvels are told and believed about them. They strike the points of their mace against their breasts and eyes, aim sword blows at their backs, thrust a spit through their sides or into their eyes, which they are said to be able to take out and replace. Or they cut out their tongues, which on being put back in their mouths reunite. It is even said that they are able to cut off their heads, and fix them again on their necks with saliva, and what is equally strange, there is no haemorrhage, or if it does occur the performer is said to be inexpert.”

Other acts included searing their tongues with a red-hot iron, putting live scorpions into their mouths, making a chain red-hot, pouring oil upon it, and when it was set alight, drawing their hands through it.

“They can cut a living being into two parts and reunite them by means of spittle,” added Sharif. “They are also said to eat arsenic, glass, and other poisons. They rattle their maces in front of shops till they receive alms, but sometimes they throw away the money they receive, as it is unlawful to take money by extortion.”

In 1932, Edmund Henderson Hunt, Chief Medical Officer of the Nizam’s State Railway, delivered a paper to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in which he described the Rafa’i’s headquarters as being in a graveyard where hundreds of their priests and fakirs were buried. Every October or November, they held an Urs in memory of their first priest that consisted of fasting, readings of the Koran, processions and self-mutilation. “Individual fakeers are also willing to submit to any test, and to perform for the special purpose of photography, including X-ray and the cinema.”

Hunt described the passing of skewers through the neck in any direction and the levering out of eyeballs as their most astonishing feats. “One old man can protrude his eye so far that the lids close behind it and it appears like a teed-up golf ball.” He discounted the use of drugs. Older performers showed no signs of pain, though younger recruits often were distressed. Hunt regretted that the Hyderabad group, long isolated in their “human backwater”, were showing signs of breaking up.

Jack Devlin, a member of the prestigious conjuring society, the Magic Circle, accompanied by Edwina Mountbatten, witnessed a performance in the mid-1940s. By then, however, any religious connection to their craft had all but disappeared. “As far as the Fakirs were concerned, it was to them Show Business with a nice fee attached.”

Hyderabad’s Resident, Sir Arthur Lothian, told him he had seen a fakir in Hyderabad “slit his stomach open and spread his bowels on a tray”, yet there was no trace of a scar the next morning. Commented Devlin dryly: “Hardly an appetising number to include in one’s programme at a cocktail party.”

Excerpted with permission from Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns, John Zubrzycki, Pan Macmillan India.