bombay’s dhobi ghats

Summer, now that it’s finally reached us here in the Wasatch Front, has brought with it visitors from out of state. Hence, I’ve neither been very good at regular blogging practices nor reading those in my Google reader, other than occasionally. At last, in a brief break, I’ve come to the logical place to write about one of my favorite visits in Bombay, the municipal Dhobi Ghats.

Some may remember a post in 2007 about Bombay’s dabbawalla lunch delivery system (re-run in January this year)–the intricate system of lunchbox pick up and delivery straight from the hands of the wives in Bombay to  husbands in their offices, then rerouted back home before the husband gets home at the end of the day. Well, the Dhobis who keep Bombay’s people in clean clothes and linens are every bit as impressive. Approximately 200 dhobi families collect dirty laundry from families around Bombay, take it back to the municipal dhobi ghats you see here, where they wash and dry it, neatly press and fold it, then deliver it back home again–all for a small fee, around Rs 400 (less than $8 US) per month.

First comes a soak in sudsy water, then scouring on the scourging stones provided in each pen until clean. They’re then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next comes the ironing, and then wrapping into neat bundles ready for home delivery. Although other ghats are scattered about the city, most of them are used by poorer locals. The most famous of these Dhobi Ghats is this one at Saat Rasta near Mahalaxmi Station (you can see it in photo #4 below) where entire dhobi families work pay a rental fee to the municipality. It’s a hereditary occupation.

It’s quite a sight, with row on row of open-air concrete wash pens. For stubborn stains, there’s a soak in a caustic solution like sulfur; drying takes place on long, brightly colored lines; and heavy coal-burning irons are used for pressing. Clothes and linens are hung to dry in batches of white, pastels, and type.

Loads are washed much as you might do at home, by color and weight.

Look as you might, you’ll never see a clothes pin on any of these lines.  Instead the lines are made by tautly stretching two lines together and twisting them tightly. A small corner of the garment is then pressed between the twisted segments.

The bonus at the end of a hot work day, there’s plenty of water and makeshift bathtubs around to take a cooling plunge in. Let’s hope he remembered which vats hold that caustic soaking substance.

Nope, everything seems fine! Whew.

The locals are hard pressed to understand why everyday so many tourists come to gape, with cameras in hand, at an ordinary people working at very ordinary labor, but having witnessed it myself I must say it’s quite an impressive sight. Another example of intelligent enterprise passed from generation to generation. And I’ll bet their CEO’s don’t get any bonus at all, just the satisfaction of a job well done at the end of the day and that cool bath.

There’s a Hindi movie, available on Netflix, entitled Dhobi Ghat, that Hubby and I enjoyed very much, especially after visiting Bombay and the dhobi ghats. It’s a story of four people from very different backgrounds whose lives in Bombay intersect briefly, leaving them forever altered by the experiences they share. One if those unforgettable characters is Munna, a dhobi from the ghats who dreams of escaping the limitations of his family’s life of labor in the ghats by becoming an actor. The characters are very real, as are their relationships, their smiles, their tears, their dreams, fears and their tragedies. It offers a decidedly different look at Bombay than the city you might have seen in Slumdog Millionaire.

13 thoughts on “bombay’s dhobi ghats

  1. Just love this post. I have pictures of the ghats that G took in the 1950’s, and they look just the same. Your pictures are better tho.

  2. This is seriously fascinating!!!! And your photos are, as always, wonderful!!!!!

    Frankly, I’d pay twenty-five bucks a month if someone would do my laundry — more if I could afford it.

    • It does seem a luxury, doesn’t it. Laundry I don’t mind doing, cooking meals every day is another matter. I’d pay for a cook if I could afford it.

  3. The Dhobi Ghats were built during British times when the city of Bombay was confined to the island city area. As the city morphed into Greater Mumbai with suburbs spreading far and wide, no new dhobi ghats were built. Much of the washing happens in small ponds and tanks in the suburbs. Most mid income families now have a washing machine at home and give washed clothes only for ironing to the dhobi. Even where it is given out for washing+ironing, the laundry guy uses power laundry machines. One of the newspapers runs a fortnightly piece where they ask expats working in Mumbai some 6-7 questions about life in Mumbai. One of the questions is – One thing you can not do without ? Most say – Dhobi Service.

    • Dear Raghu! You always seem to come up with just the observation or aside to make the post more interesting. I’m glad you added how middle class families now own washing machines. It wasn’t that common even in the 80s when we were first visiting India. The dhobis that did some of our laundry always managed to make my six 5 underwear into more like size 12! Machines are more efficient. We’ve been awfully busy with your cousin Swarna and co over the weekend–sorry to have taken so long to reply. (I’m getting close to Sula and the Bombay foodie post. Hope you’ll stay tuned! 🙂

  4. I was fascinated by this view of an India not in the usual travel books. The people and customs are the best. More of the same, please!

    • I agree, Grannymar, but they have a system of marking or color coding, and even when the markings fade away, by that time they seem so familiar with the clothes they automatically know who it belongs to.

  5. Pingback: reuminating on feminism and old habits « My Wintersong

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