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Sprawling across acres in bustling South Mumbai, the iconic Dhobi Ghat is most known for being the world’s largest open-air laundry system. In this historic area, over 7,000 dhobis work a combined 20 hours per day sorting, scrubbing, bleaching, drying and iron pressing clothes from around the city to bring in a revenue of around ₹1 billion (US$16 million) a year.
To most observers, Dhobi Ghat serves as a reminder of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that made yesteryear’s Bombay the bustling commercial capital that it is today.
As novel and amusing as outsiders may find this phenomenon, Mumbai’s Dhobi Ghat has been around in all its glory for well over a century. Located right by the Mahalaxmi local train station, the ghat was first built in 1890 to serve the city’s Parsi and English populations when they moved to the city in large numbers. While such open-air laundry systems are common in other Indian cities, the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat expanded in the rapid, unconventional way that Mumbai did over the 20th century, bagging some major clients such as the local railway network and the city’s many hospitals and hotels along the way.
Today, Dhobi Ghat features over 1,026 open-air wash troughs, each of which is equipped with a stone where clothes are flogged by the dhobis. Clothes are collected from each individual customer, brought to the ghat and sorted by washermen and women. Most of the time the practice is to soak clothes in detergent-infused water overnight and then proceed to flog, scrub and wash them the next morning. Then they are neatly hung on ropes to dry, making the most of the cramped space and simultaneously offering a stunning sight to visitors and observers from the overhead Mahalaxmi Bridge. The clothes are then pressed, folded and neatly packaged into bundles ready to be delivered back to patrons. And even as hundreds of thousands of clothes from Colaba to Virar are handled by thousands of dhobis on a daily basis, rarely does anything get misplaced or lost.
Over almost a century and half of existence, Dhobi Ghat has withstood many changes. Most households in the city own or have access to automated washing machines. Many hospitals and hotels have their own laundry services. Yet, the ghat has been able to maintain a customer base amid technological and demographic changes. With prices that are much cheaper than private laundry services, the dhobis of Mahalaxmi are still the prime choice for most of the city’s smaller hospitals and hotels. Garment retailers from around the city who specialize in used clothing also take to the super efficient washing community to prep their products.
In 2011, Mahalaxmi’s Dhobi Ghat even achieved a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, a plaque from which can be viewed at the entrance. It reads, “The most clothes that people hand-washed simultaneously at a single location were 496. This feat was achieved by the Dhobi Kalyan and Audyogik Vikas Coop Society on March 8, 2011.”
If the thousands of visiting tourists don’t make Dhobi Ghat’s integral positioning in the city’s landscape obvious, then its frequent appearances in Bollywood will do so. A scene shot at the laundry is almost essential for any movie trying to capture the essence of Mumbai – which is exactly why it has featured in movies ranging from the cult action film Don (1978) starring Amitabh Bachchan to the much celebrated comedy drama Munnabhai M.B.B.S. (2003). The ghat served as a character in Kiran Rao’s acclaimed directorial debut Dhobi Ghat (2010).
To catch the washers in action, your best bet is to head there during the early hours of the morning. Mahalaxmi railway station offers a stunning view of the area from above – one that lets you grasp its impressive scale. You can head in to the laundry without any entrance fees, though the informal dhobi tour guides in the area are likely to charge you a fee for a tour.