Today, the Juna Dhobi Ghat seems faded. There is resistance to modernisation and economies of scale
In South Asia, there is a vocational caste, called dhobi. Dhobis wash clothes and bed coverings by hand. Juna Dhobi Ghat, Pakistan’s largest outdoor laundry, is centuries old and still functional. Thousands of launderers earn their daily wages here. The workers use donkey carts to carry dirty clothes to the dhobi ghat for washing.
Dhobi Ghat is not only the place of employment for thousands of men and women; for generations, it has also been home to several communities. Before the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Hindu and Muslim dhobis had lived and worked together at Juna Dhobi Ghat. With the end of British rule, the Hindu launderers migrated to India and were replaced by migrating Muslim workers, mostly settled in Lyari Quarters. Today, the Dhobi Ghat seems faded. There is resistance to modernisation and economies of scale. Coal powered irons remain the norm and washing machines are uncommon. Kilns are still used to cook out stubborn stains.
“I have been washing clothes with my father at Juna Dhobi Gath, next to the Lyari River, since I was just 12 years old,” Muhammad Sharif, a 65-year-old washerman, tells The News on Sunday (TNS). “Before partition, my father, Allah Banda, was a dhobi in Delhi, where washing clothes was our family vocation. Now our fourth generation is engaged in this occupation at Juna Dhobi Ghat. We prefer to wash dirty clothes by hand, using soaps and detergents, in cisterns next to the Lyari River in Juna Dhobi Ghat, in the downtown area. The machines have taken over most of the washermen’s work. I am not satisfied with these washing machines. We still prefer to wash clothes by hand.”
Sharif says that he charges Rs 1,000 to wash and iron a bundle of 100 items - shirts, trousers and shalwar qamees, and Rs 100 for a bed sheet each. Once they used to charge 2 paisas per item. He says the industry is shrinking in Karachi. “Our young generation is ashamed of this work,” Sharif says, adding that they prefer private jobs.
One of the oldest and most famous open air dhobi ghats is located near Mahalaxmi Railway Station in Mumbai. It was constructed in 1890. Inspired by the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the British built a dhobi ghat in Calcutta, in 1902. Many other South Asian cities, like Karachi, have similar dhobi ghats. The Juna Dhobi Ghat was set up in the early 1900s and is spread over almost 5 square kilometres, along the bank of the Lyari River, where the water is channeled into small concrete cisterns. The cisterns are clustered in groups and each has its own flogging stone. Rows of clotheslines surround the cisterns.
“Juna Dhobi Ghat has a rich history but, due to water shortages and long hours of electrical load-shedding in the area, the laundry business is affected” – Abdul Malik.
Ameer Ahmed Khan, a resident of Liaquatabad, tells TNS, “In 1996, the washerman who would come to my home to collect dirty clothes would charge Rs 2 per item. The washerman would visit weekly and collect the dirty clothes. After washing and ironing the clothes, he would drop them back to my house. Till 2004, I would pay Rs 4 or 5 per item of clothing.”
65-year-old Abdul Malik, who works in Juna Dhobi Ghat, recalls, “My forefathers were washers in Farash Khana, near Jamia Masjid, in Delhi. I started washing clothes in my childhood. My father and I would collect dirty clothes from Nazimabad, Liaquatabad, Bahadurabad, Burns Road, Saddar and Tariq Road, using donkey carts to carry those. I have been in this profession for over 50 years and still feed my family from the money I earn by washing clothes.” Malik says that he is now in poor health and will soon be unable to continue this physically taxing profession. Washing dirty clothes is not an easy job, he adds, and the young generation is not interested in continuing in their forefathers’ work.
“Juna Dhobi Ghat has a rich history but, due to water shortages and long hours of electrical load-shedding in the area, the laundry business is affected,” Malik tells TNS. In the past, he says, they could get clean water from the river to wash clothes. But now, the river has become a sewage drain. Moreover, the construction of the Lyari Expressway, which connects Sohrab Goth with Mauripur Road, has also restricted the working area. Now, washing-plant owners have installed their own pumps to draw water. Malik says that launderers who don’t have their own water pumps have to purchase water from well-owners. A cistern of water costs Rs 150.
“About 400 to 500 washermen’s families are still working at Juna Dhobi Ghat,” Abdul Malik says. “Their problems are only growing. The government has cut off the official water connections for this area. Water and electricity are the most important utility services for dhobis. If the government restores our clean water connections, we are ready to pay the monthly bills.”
“I have been working as a daily wage earner at the Juna Dhobi Ghat for the past 40 years,” 60-year-old Abdul Ghafoor tells TNS. “I earn Rs 300-400 for a whole day’s work. My duty is to spread and fold the clothes after they have been washed. When clean water was available in abundance, the washers would clean dirty clothes in cisterns by beating them on stones. But, due to water shortages, they have started using machines and plants to launder clothes. People increasingly hire housekeepers to wash clothes at home, which is also a major reason for the shrinking of this industry in Karachi. The historic Juna Dhobi Ghat has become a virtual garbage dump. Garbage heaps have destroyed the beauty of this open air laundry. Using different tactics, the Sindh government is trying to get the dhobis to vacate this area. They want to eliminate one of South Asia’s oldest dhobi ghats.”
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan