Exploring Mumbai Through the Dabbawallas and Dhobis

Mumbai DabbawallasSometimes when I visit a large city, it can often seem like every other city I’ve been to before, loaded with high rises and chain stores. When I visit a new place, I try to find similarities in each new city to ones I’ve visited before. This was definitely the case when I arrived in Mumbai, and city unlike any I’ve been to before. During our driving tours of Mumbai, I looked around and tried to find the familiar in a place that is entirely unique.

The auto-rickshaws reminded me of Bangkok’s tuk-tuks. The car horns reminded me of Hanoi. The elaborately designed and decorated trucks and buses reminded me of the chicken buses in Central America.

Yet, Mumbai is a city that is unique, even among the large cities of India. Moreover, within Mumbai we saw two separate and unique enterprises, that helped to identify the city even more.

Hardworking Dabbawallas

Mumbai DabbawallasEach day, over 6 million people travel the trains in Mumbai, coming in from the suburban sprawl for work. Some of them travel up to three hours each way to reach their office, so they need to leave very early in the morning. Many of them are men, with wives at home who prepare their lunches. To avoid the wives having to work all night to prepare a proper, hot Indian lunch to send off with their husbands at the crack of dawn, the Dabbawallas provide a much needed, and truly unique service.

Mumbai DabbawallasWives will prepare the lunch when they wake up, often as the husbands head out the door for the morning commute. Once the lunch is ready, it is placed in a tiffin box, a shiny, round metal container, with 4 or 5 levels. Each level contains a different dish, along with rice. Our guide from Viator Travel explained the process of the Dabbawallas, and up until this point, I totally understood how the process worked. It’s what comes next that is baffling.

Mumbai DabbawallasOnce the tiffin is ready, a complicated series of steps, involving manpower and logistics unheard of elsewhere, occur to ensure the tiffin is delivered to the right office worker in Mumbai. For a monthly fee, around 1000 Rupee, the Dabbawallas arrange the pick up of the tiffin, the train travel of the tiffin, and delivery to the client in Mumbai.

Mumbai Dabbawallas

Mumbai DabbawallasThis might all seem simple enough until you look at the numbers. Over 200,000 tiffin boxes are delivered each day. Remarkably, they have a 99.9% accuracy rate. The Dabbawallas use a complex series of numbers and letters to organize the system, made even more interesting because many of the Dabbawallas are illiterate.  The system is so complex and efficient that it has been studied in business schools around the world.

On our morning tour in Mumbai, we stood outside the Churchgate train station, at just the right time and in just the right space. I watched the Dabbawallas carry large crates of tiffins boxes on their heads. They sorted them on the street to prepare for office delivery. The Dabbawallas placed the tiffins on the back of bicycles, finding all sorts of space to hang as many of them as possible. And, off they went.

Their work was quick, efficient, and mesmerizing, and truly a uniquely Mumbai experience. As soon as they started to arrive, they were gone. Tiffins delivered all over the city.

Riding the Train in Mumbai

Mumbai TrainsAfter watching the Dabbawallas at work, we hopped on a local train with our Indian guide. The Indian trains are another unique experience on their own. There are women’s only carriages, and mixed carriages. That meant that Eric and I, with our guide, sat in the mixed carriage. I was the only woman in the train car, but it was mid-morning and not terribly busy.

We sat on one of the hard seats in the ancient train. There were grates across the windows. Everything about this train made it seem like the oldest train I’d ever been on. The biggest surprise, though, were the fans. There were fans on the ceiling, and switches on the walls of the train car to operate the train. The switches actually worked. That to me was a surprising feat considering trains that we have been on in Europe that could not provide the same functions. Another surprising experience on our morning tour of Mumbai.

Our Mumbai train excursions only lasted about 5 stops, though, to arrive at the Dhobi Ghat station.

Hardworking Dhobis

Mumbai Dhobi GhatThe name Dhobi Ghat is one that is familiar to us. Although it was probably the only thing familiar about this Mumbai experience. Dhabi Ghat is the name of a train station in Singapore, one near Little India. We’ve heard the name announced on the Singapore metro dozens of times. We just like the sound of it. Just say it out loud: “Dhobi Ghat.” But, we didn’t travel the train to Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai to see the station itself.

Just outside the train station, we stood on a bridge and looked over the hundreds of Dhobis, also hard at work. Dhobis are laundry specialists, who work a complex outdoor laundromat.

Mumbai Dhobi GhatApproximately 800 families live in this small location, sandwiched between the train station and newly constructed high rise buildings. They hand wash laundry for local businesses, hospitals, small hotels, and even clothing exporters.

It’s another process I could not fully grasp. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? I knew they used colored string on each piece of clothing to identify the owner, as they washed the laundry in the water, and beat it clean on the stones. Men are in charge of the washing. The women were hidden away inside, doing the laundry.

The most striking thing about observing the Dhobis, were the clothes lines. They do not use clothes pins, but yet, the laundry hung clean and bright, towering over the men washing below.  They wind the clothes line in a unique way that leaves the clothes secure on the lines. Because much of the clothing included uniforms and other similar looking clothing, the scene before us was colorfully mesmerizing. But, I focused more on the men, standing knee deep in the cloudy water, hand washing the laundry of Mumbai.

Mumbai Dhobi Ghat

Mumbai Dhobi GhatDuring the tour, our guide also provided us a history lesson of Mumbai, drove past many of the historic buildings, and escorted us through Crawford market. But, witnessing the Dabbawallas and Dhobis at work, well, that was a memorable experience and unique to Mumbai. It was certainly nothing that compared to any other city tour we’ve taken before.

We were hosted by Viator Travel on their Mumbai Morning Tour and were supported by the JW Marriott Hotel Mumbai Sahar during our stay in Mumbai, but all my opinions are, as always, my own.

For more information about India, see our India Travel Guide, for information on accommodations, what to eat, and tours to book.

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