The local train pulled up at Mahalaxmi station and I hopped out along with my tour guide from Raconteur walks. Not far from this station lies the World’s largest open air laundromat. Standing on the over bridge of the road, I looked down to see many colorful clothes fluttering in the wind. Whites and blues, reds and greens, all sorts of clothes clustered around, rows and rows of them, criss-crossing each other.. Trying to see beyond the clothes was almost impossible. A bunch of tin sheets shining in the sun covered up the chaos beneath. Rising right behind them were tall posh buildings that showed the stark contrast of living standards prevailing in India. There I was, curious to see the inside of Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai. When I had planned my visit to Mumbai the first thing that got into my list of things to do was to visit Dhobi ghat and the next was to meet the Dabbawalas. Dabbawalas will be part of another blog. But now I want to talk about the many things that happen behind the shiny tin sheets and fluttering clothes.
Walking down the uneven steps led me to the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. There is yet another Dhobi talao in south Bombay which is different from this and not the same experience. Not everyone can loiter into Dhobi ghat. Believe me, you can get easily lost in those teeny tiny lanes running inside the dhobi ghat. A person from the dhobi ghat met us outside to take us on a tour around dhobi ghat. It is also one of the most tourist visited places in Mumbai. For foreigners it is the Indian slum experience to gasp at. For me it was curiosity combined with visiting a heritage site. That’s right, a heritage site that is century old and before urbanization could take over, I wanted to be part of it. Situated in prime area of Mumbai on a land worth crores, the future of dhobi ghat is not known. Am glad I got to be here and see it for myself. Before visiting this place I had many assumptions. I was wondering why would someone still give clothes to washermen to wash? Why is this place not yet upgraded? How can people be still stuck in a century old occupation? All my assumptions were broken as I walked through Dhobi ghat.. Join me on the dhobi ghat tour.
Dhobi ghat was built by the British raj in 1890. The obvious objective being to wash their clothes and make their life easier. Today it is the same dhobi ghat in existence. Peeping into the dhobi ghat, there are rows and rows of wash pens each fitted with a flogging stone. It was late noon and only few of them were washing at this time of the hour. The pen was filled with water and detergent and the whites were being hand washed. Some old bathing tub types made of cement were also around to hold water. And then were extremely old wooden basin tubs that you can see in yester year english movies. All these been here for nearly a hundred years. Unlike what I thought, technology was there all around. The whites were washed and stuffed into a drier that wriggled out all the water. And behind me stood a washing machine that was customized for the dhobis. It looked like a horizontal drum that churned the clothes. The soapy water was flowing almost everywhere and watching my step carefully, I walked past few pens deeper into the dwelling.
From hospitals to hotels and spas all the whites in the city comes here for a wash. There has never been a time when the order has got mixed up, or the clothes have gone missing. It is an occupation that they are doing for hundred years and they have been doing it diligently, passing it on to generations. About 5000 dhobis work here and they share the washing pens. It is a government regulated place and the government charges a nominal rent per washing pen. Nearly 25 lakhs of clothes get washed here everyday. Looking up, I saw rows of thick strings wound together to dry the clothes. The clothes are tied to the string in a fashion that it doesn’t need cloth pins/clips to hold them yet they hold strong against the wind. In this way if at all there is a downpour the strings will be pulled and the clothes can be removed quickly. I stopped for a moment to take photo of life at dhobi ghat and I missed my guide. Believe me, the lanes inside the dhobi ghat can make you get lost easily!!
Smart is the man who makes use of the opportunities that come their way and smarter is the man who creates opportunities for himself. Dhobi ghat is an epitome for this statement. Apart from washing of clothes that came in from hospitals and hotels, there are lot of garment companies too that supply clothes to them for pre-wash. Before going on shelf for retail sale, garment factories send their clothes to the washers and they do a pre-wash, wriggle it dry, press it, pack it neatly and send it back. If this is one of the businesses they are doing apart from the regular washing, the other one almost made me go wide eye! They refurbish sarees!! Can you believe that? Once we discard sarees to the newspaper guy or exchange it for new or those that land up in chor bazaar are brought to the washers for refurbishing. The sarees are sterilized by boiling it in hot water along with caustic soda, then goes for a wash, gets pressed and gets sold in the outside market. It is sold as brand new sari!! Not just in Mumbai, it gets sold in markets of Gujarat and Rajasthan, outside the state!! Not in my wildest dream did I think that this could be a way of business! Refurbished sarees.. While I was still looking at the drums on blazing fire with sarees getting boiled in them, my guide proceeded to the next section. Some of them were using the electric iron to press the clothes while others where using the old coal iron. Mind you that these coal iron boxes alone weigh 6kg.
Somewhere between the lanes as I walk past, fresh smell of tea with a dash of elaichi hit my nostrils. I turned to see that a lady was preparing hot tea. A small room, her husband was taking a nap or had just closed his eyes and her child was playing nearby, old iron suitcases stacked up and a bed rolled up on another side. There was nothing in the name of privacy. And like this there were many families residing in this dhobi ghat. Yes, this is not a place just clothes get washed, it is where life revolve and people have very much adjusted to live among the tiny rooms that are lined up and stacked up. More than 200 families reside here this way. Iron ladders serve as steps for the upper floor houses. Congested houses, open drainage and constant wetness in the system, this is the life of dhobi ghat!
Dhobi ghat is a popular tourist destination to many. But that is the livelihood for many more. To think that entrepreneurs are budding out of this simple place is beyond imagination. Where there is a will there is a way. By the way did you know that they are also Guiness Record holders? They hold the Guinness World Records for most people hand washing clothes simultaneously at a single location, about 496 of them!
If you would like to visit Dhobi Ghat, do go with a walking tour. I went along with Raconteur Tours and it was well organised. This is not a sponsored post.