Kristian Bertel | Photography
Archive story
In this archive story we are visiting the famous open air laundry Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, India.
Read the background story of this archive photo by the photographer.
Dhobi Ghat, also known as the world's largest open air laundry, is a unique and iconic landmark in the bustling and vibrant city of Mumbai. Situated in the Mahalaxmi area of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat has been a hub of activity for over a century and continues to be an important part of the daily lives of many Mumbaikars.
Dhobi Ghat, also known as the world's largest open air laundry, is a unique and iconic landmark in the bustling and vibrant city of Mumbai. Situated in the Mahalaxmi area of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat has been a hub of activity for over a century and continues to be an important part of the daily lives of many Mumbaikars.
Kristian Bertel, Photographer By Kristian Bertel, Photographer
– Updated on March 23, 2024

Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai

The history of Dhobi Ghat dates back to the arrival of the British in India, where washermen at the Dhobi Ghat in India with lots of troughs full of water began beating and pummeling clothes to remove soiling, above just hundreds of washing lines with clothes hung to dry. During the British Raj, Mumbai was a major trading port and with the influx of foreign traders, there was a growing demand for laundry services. This led to the establishment of Dhobi Ghat in the late 19th century, where trained 'Dhobis' or washermen would wash, dry and iron clothes for the British troops and residents of the city.

Is Dhobi Ghat more than just a laundry service?

Yes, today the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai has become a symbol of the city's diversity and its unique way of life. The 'Dhobis' or washermen who work here come from different parts of India and have been following this profession for generations. They have become an integral part of Mumbai's cultural fabric and their hard work and dedication have earned them the admiration and respect of the locals.

Bundles of clothes are washed at the Dhobi Ghat
The origin of Dhobi Ghat can be traced back to the late 19th century when washermen from different parts of India migrated to Mumbai in search of work. They settled near the Mahalaxmi temple and started using the area as a place to wash clothes. Over time, more and more washermen started setting up their businesses here, making it the largest open-air laundry in India and in the world.

The name 'Dhobi Ghat' comes from the word 'Dhobi', which means laundry in Hindi and 'Ghat', which refers to a series of steps leading to a body of water, where clothes can be washed and dried and the unique feature of this attraction is the way the laundry is carried out. The washermen, known as 'Dhobis', beat the clothes against flat rocks and then scrub them on a 'Firota', which is a traditional wooden tool with slanted edges. They then hang the clothes on clotheslines to dry in the sun. This process may seem simple, but it requires great skill, strength and agility and the 'Dhobis' also use specially made detergents and soaps to remove stubborn stains and keep the clothes clean and fresh.

"Dhobi Ghat, also known as the world's largest outdoor laundry, is a sprawling area in the Mahalaxmi neighborhood of Mumbai where hundreds of washermen, known as 'Dhobis', wash and dry clothes daily using traditional methods"

A fascinating sight and a unique experience in Mumbai
The daily routine at Dhobi Ghat starts early in the morning, with hundreds of 'Dhobis' arriving on bicycles and in trucks carrying huge bundles of clothes and these 'Dhobis' have been trained in the traditional method of washing clothes by hand and they use large stones to beat the dirt out of the clothes. The clothes are then soaked in water, dried on lines and finally ironed to perfection. It is a sight to behold, with rows and rows of clothes hanging on lines, creating a beautiful mosaic of colors.

Visitors to Dhobi Ghat can witness the laundry in full swing, with lines of colorful clothes hanging from clotheslines and 'Dhobis' working tirelessly to wash, scrub and dry clothes and it is a fascinating sight and a unique experience, giving a glimpse into the traditional way of life in Mumbai. It is also common to see the 'Dhobis' singing and chatting as they work, adding a lively atmosphere to the place. Apart from being a major tourist attraction, Dhobi Ghat also plays a crucial role in the city's economy. Many hotels, hospitals and other institutions around the city rely on this open-air laundry to wash and deliver their linens.

The 'Dhobis' work round the clock, making sure that clothes are washed and delivered on time. In recent years, Dhobi Ghat has also been featured in several Bollywood movies and has gained worldwide recognition as an iconic landmark of Mumbai. It has become a popular spot not only for tourists but also for photographers and artists, who are drawn to the vibrant colors and unique atmosphere of this one-of-a-kind place.

However, despite its popularity, Dhobi Ghat faces several challenges, such as water scarcity, pollution and encroachment by modern washing machines. To address these issues, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation has introduced modern techniques and equipment to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the laundry and efforts are also being made to protect and preserve this cultural heritage site.

In addition to washing traditional clothes, the 'Dhobis' at Dhobi Ghat also cater to the changing demands of the city. They have adapted to modern techniques such as steam pressing and dry cleaning and now offer laundry services for a wide range of items including bedsheets, curtains and carpets. However, Dhobi Ghat as mentioned above, is not just about laundry – it is a vibrant and bustling community that is constantly evolving. The area is also home to many small businesses including tea stalls, snack shops and tailoring units and in the midst of all this activity, the 'Dhobis' and their families live in small huts and shacks that line the streets of Dhobi Ghat, creating a sense of community and camaraderie.

"Over the years, Dhobi Ghat has also become a popular tourist attraction and has been featured in several movies and documentaries. Visitors from all over the world come to witness this unique and mesmerizing sight. Many tours and bike rides in the city also include a stop at Dhobi Ghat, giving tourists a glimpse into the daily lives of the 'Dhobis' and their way of life"

Mumbai's traditional hub for washing clothes
Located in the Mahalaxmi neighborhood, this open-air laundry is the city's traditional hub for washing clothes. Spread over an area of 40,000 m2, it is a bustling hub of activity where nearly 7,000 washermen work tirelessly to clean, wash and dry clothes. However, despite its cultural and historical significance, Dhobi Ghat is facing challenges in the modern world. With the rise of modern washing machines and dry cleaning services, the demand for traditional laundry services is declining and this has led to a decrease in the number of 'Dhobis' and many are finding it hard to sustain themselves and their families Kristian Bertel | Photography learned.

The photographer's own experience of being at the Dhobi Ghat
"- As a passionate traveler, I've always been drawn to new cultures and traditions and my recent trip to Mumbai, India was no exception. Among the colorful chaos of the bustling city, one place stood out to me in particular – Dhobi Ghat. Located in the heart of Mumbai, this open-air laundromat is dubbed as the largest in the world and I was eager to experience it firsthand. The first thing that caught my attention was the vibrant colors of 'Saris' and other traditional Indian garments hanging on clotheslines, covering every inch of the area. The 'Dhobis' work tirelessly, washing, drying and ironing clothes to perfection. It's a mesmerizing sight, watching these skilled workers maneuver piles of laundry with such ease and efficiency", the Photographer says.

"- It is is a labyrinth of concrete wash pens and clotheslines, where thousands of pieces of laundry are washed, dried and ironed every day. From a distance, it may seem like a chaotic mess, but as I made my way through the maze of white sheets and colorful garments, I couldn't help but feel a sense of rhythm and order in the chaos. I was greeted by the sight of men and women scrubbing and beating clothes against wash stones with their bare hands. The repetitive sound of clothes being slammed against the stones echoed throughout the 'Ghat' and I couldn't help but admire the hard work and dedication put into this age-old profession", the Photographer says again.

"- As I walked further, I noticed wooden cots lined up along the walls, where the 'Dhobis' would take a break from their labour-intensive work. I couldn't help but feel a sense of admiration towards these hardworking individuals, who often come from generations of 'Dhobis' and take great pride in their work. But it wasn't just the 'Dhobis' that caught my attention, the colors and textures of the clothes were a sight to behold. From intricately patterned sarees to vibrant 'Lungis', the 'Ghat' was a rainbow of fabrics. And even though the clothes were being washed in harsh chemicals, they appeared brighter and more vibrant after they were hung out to dry in the sun. As I continued to explore, I stumbled upon a small shop selling snacks and 'Chai', and I eagerly purchased a cup of the famous Mumbai cutting 'Chai'. With my cup of tea in hand, I sat down on one of the wooden cots and observed the daily routines of the 'Dhobis'. It was a peaceful moment amidst the chaos and I couldn't help but feel a sense of connection to the 'Dhobis' and their way of life", the Photographer says again.

"But amidst all the beauty and wonder of Dhobi Ghat, it's important to recognize the challenges and hardships faced by the people working here. The work is physically demanding and the 'Dhobis' often work long hours for minimal pay. Nevertheless, they continue to carry on with their work, preserving this age-old tradition and providing a crucial service to the people of Mumbai. My visit to Dhobi Ghat was an eye-opening experience, where I got a glimpse into the daily lives of the hardworking 'Dhobis' and their unique trade. It was a humbling experience that left a lasting impression on me and I will always remember the sights, sounds and smells of this iconic landmark in Mumbai"

See this video about the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai made by Hindustan Times.

"- As I entered the neighborhood, the bustling streets near the Mahalaxmi Railway Station were filled with the sounds of clothes being beaten against stones and the smell of soap and fabric softener lingering in the air. I was amazed by seing the process of this unique laundry system. The 'Dhobis' work in a hierarchical system, with each one specializing in a specific task. Some wash the clothes using soap and water, while others beat them against rocks to remove any stubborn stains. Once clean, the clothes are hung on clotheslines to dry and then expertly ironed by yet another member of the team. The challenges they face as 'Dhobis', such as the increasing competition from modern laundries and dry-cleaning services", the Photographer says again.

"- However, he proudly told me that Dhobi Ghat has been in operation for over 140 years and is still the preferred laundry for many locals and hotels in the city. As I continued to explore, I was struck by the sense of community at Dhobi Ghat. It is not just a workplace for these 'Dhobis', but also a place where they live, socialize and raise their families. I saw children playing in the alleys between the rows of clotheslines while their parents worked nearby. It's a unique blend of work and home that adds to the charm of this bustling laundry", the Photographer says again.

"- As a frequent traveler, I've found that some of the most captivating experiences are often found off the beaten path. So when I heard about Dhobi Ghat, a renowned open-air laundry in Mumbai, I knew I had to see it for myself. It is more than just a laundry service, it is a way of life. It represents the hard work, resilience and determination of the 'Dhobis' and their contribution to the city of Mumbai. It is a living example of the city's spirit and its ability to adapt and thrive in the face of changing times, an integral part of Mumbai's history, culture and economy. It represents the hard work and dedication of thousands of 'Dhobis', who have kept this unique tradition alive for over a century", the Photographer says again.

"- The visit to Dhobi Ghat was not just a visual experience, but also a sensory one. The rhythmic sounds of the dhobis at work, the smell of fresh laundry and the vibrant colors of the clothes against the backdrop of a busy city all made for a truly immersive experience. As I was leaving, I couldn't help but feel grateful for the opportunity to witness a part of Mumbai's rich culture and heritage. Dhobi Ghat is a must-visit for anyone who wants to experience the heart and soul of Mumbai",
the Photographer says again.

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More archive stories

India is a land full of stories. On every street, on every corner and in the many places in India, life is rushing by you as a photographer with millions of stories to be told. In the archive story above, you hopefully had a readable insight in the story that was behind the photo of the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai. On this website of Kristian Bertel | Photography you can find numerous travel pictures from the photographer. Stories and moments that tell the travel stories of how the photographer captured the specific scene that you see in the picture. The photographer's images have a story behind them, images that all are taken from around India throughout his photo journeys. The archive stories delve into Kristian's personal archive to reveal never-before-seen, including portraits and landscapes beautifully produced snapshots from various travel assignments. The archive is so-far organized into photo stories, this one included, each brought to life by narrative text and full-color photos. Together, these fascinating stories tell a story about the life in India. India, the motherland to many people around the world, a land of unforgetable travel moments. The archive takes viewers on a spectacular visual journey through some of the most stunning photographs to be found in the photographer's archive collection. The photographer culled the images to reflect the many variations on the universal theme of beauty and everyday life in India. By adding these back stories the photographer's work might immensely enhanced the understanding of the photographs.