DELHI’S DHOBI WALLAHS

Tucked away behind the high-rise buildings of Delhi’s Connaught Place, on prime development land near the British Council offices and the Regal Cinema, is the Devi Prasad Sadan Dhobi Ghat, home to over 60 dhobis.

Ghats are traditionally steps down to a river’s edge, where dhobi is normally carried out and is also the generic name for a washing place. With the Yahuma River so far away here they have to rely on water from a borehole instead of the river’s water. Having seen and walked in the Yahuma River I know where I would want my clothes washed!

A dhobi (or dhobi wallah), is a self employed washer man (rarely a woman) who makes his living washing clothes for hotels, restaurants, hospitals etc, and his private clients.

Some of the dhobis working here live in the same complex of two bedroom apartments nearby. Originally from eastern Utter Pradesh, the government moved them when the ghats where they worked were closed down. A fate that might soon be repeated?

As for the washing. The items are firstly soaked in detergent in the chimanchi, or re-cycled bathtubs or disused water tanks, before being beaten on the stone slabs by the dhobis standing up to their waist in water in the houds. After soaking for thirty minutes they are taken to the hand powered or electric hydra (spin dryers) where most of the water is removed, then onto the back of a bicycle to the washing lines close by. Once dry they are taken home, again on bicycles, where the womenfolk of the family do the ironing and folding ready for returning to the clients – which I imagine is also by bicycle or handcart.

A dhobi earns around Rs25,000 a month, ie, £240 or $377.

Health and Safety is clearly not a major consideration here. Crude electrics with cables and water in very close proximity, machines spinning at high speed without covers and very hot water are just some of the risks – and not a warning sign in sight.

Dhobi is so much a part of Indian culture. It was a privilege to witness it at close hand. With one lady exception everyone was very welcoming and hospitable.