The Dhobi Ghat – The open laundry


Tucked away behind a narrow alley entrance lies the largest communal laundry service in all of Mumbai, the Dhobi Ghat. Situated in the Mahalxmi neighborhood and servicing many of its 20 million people the Dhobis have provided  laundry service to Mumbai for more than 120 years.

The men, there are no women that do this feat, each have specific jobs which must be performed in order. Dirty laundry is collected by men, on foot with no more than their trolleys to lug the heavy loads from each location in the city to the laundry.

Man arriving with dirty laundry

The sense of community is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. The laundry operates 365 days a year.

Their brief is simple, to launder the clothes and make them look like new again.

The laundry is operated as private enterprise, 1 person will employ 20 others to wash, scrub, starch, dry, iron and return the clothes to their rightful home. For this these men are paid around 7 – 8000 Rupees a month. That’s approx 140 AUD.

The open tubs  contain water of varying degrees of dirtiness. Each man has 4 tubs that he works from. Clothes are scrubbed, bashed against flogging stones, sluiced by hand and the whole processed repeated over and over again until the worker is satisfied at their cleanliness. These men work long hours from sunrise till well after the sun sets, between 12 and 14 hours, and many of those standing in the same water they wash the clothes from.

This work is totally dominated by men.

Each cart is affixed with a plate similar to number plates found on cars. Each cart is licensed and each man hauling the laundry via these means requires a license .  These men work tirelessly over days exceeding more than 12-14 hrs.   When they pick up the dirty laundry they require only minimal information to identify who owns what piece of clothing, when it came in and when it should be returned.

Their fathers, and their fathers fathers before them have learned how to remember the complex unraveling of who owns what. They take no notes to remember addresses preferring to use their memories and small color coded threads.  They, like all the other men in this community make only a pittance to live on and are paid 35 rupee per week.

Sari’s, worn by women at more formal functions present a unique circumstance that these men need to address. 

5 meters of cloth goes into each Sari and these must be pressed come rain, monsoon or shine. In summer the cloths are wound tightly around timber logs, much like a big rolling pin, and placed in the sunshine to dry. When they’re removed from the rollers they are straight with no wrinkles to be seen. This works well until the Monsoon season when drying anything then becomes a problem. When the rains come the sari cloth is again wound round the log blocks, then they are placed inside a structure similar to a kiln where the cloth is dried. It is carefully removed from the logs rolls and folded to await delivery to its rightful owner.

5 years ago washing machines were introduced into the Dhobi community but men still employ traditional means to ensure clothes are clean before they use these machines.

Finally to complete the process several families use heavy flat irons to iron the remaining articles. Looking at the finished product you would never know that many years of man power went into getting your washing immaculately clean.  It’s all returned to you within a 24 – 48 hour period with many unsuspecting tourists being none the wiser as to the extraordinary adventure their clothes took on the way to becoming clean.

Children born into this lifestyle will continue to follow in their fathers footsteps, and so continue the long tradition of the Dhobi ghat.

I went with Hemali from Bravo Bombay tours http://bravobombay.com/

Look them up, very professional and such an informative and engaging guide.

Any mistakes in this post are entirely mine, though I thank Hemali for all her wonderful insights to this fascinating place.

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