Mumbai is actually a group of islands used by fishermen, and so nothing describes historical Mumbai better than its waterfront, pictured below (cover photo). The city’s most iconic landmarks include the Sassoon Fish Market, the Mumbai Dabbawalas (lunch delivery system) and the Dhobi Ghat (outdoor laundry).
Like Delhi (see our post on Delhi and Agra), Mumbai has some great tourist destinations. However, instead writing about the Gateway of India, the Vipassana Pagoda, the Shree Siddhivinayak, the Elephant Caves and so on, we decided to blog on the more organic aspects of the city. Like Kolkata (see our post on Kolkata), Mumbai should be explored organically, to absorb the life that exists in the streets and neighborhoods.
Mumbai is the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India, its most populous city and the seventh largest city in the world (20 Million).
Its name derives from Mumba Devi salt collectors and fisher folks who originally inhabited the islands, but its nickname is the “city which never sleeps”.
Sassoon Fish Market
All your senses are working at Mumbai’s atmospheric Sassoon Fish Docks. They are India’s oldest docks, built in 1875 on reclaimed land. They were owned by David Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew and leader of the Jewish community in Bombay.
The day at the docks begins at 5am where a commercial auction takes place for the catch that is waiting on the unloaded fishing trawlers. It is an intense and pungent scene where colourfully clad fishermen and handlers unload and sort the fish throughout the morning.
There are massive amounts of shellfish here, including shrimp, crab and prawns, as well as red snapper, tuna, cuttlefish and sting rays. These massive catches, 20 tonnes per day, are sold in heated exchanges to restaurants and local fishmongers.
We noticed children as young as 8 or 10 involved in the process of peeling and boxing thousands of pink prawns as crows swooped in and out, determined to steal some. The backdrop for all of this is the large, colouful wooden fishing boats where fishermen are constantly unloading what seems to be an endless catch.
Although we had heard that photography was not allowed, we were able to snap away without any problem.
The Mumbai dabbawalas – lunchbox delivery system.
In Mumbai, a lunchbox delivery system called the dabbawalas is very popular. Hot lunches are picked up from homes or restaurants and delivered to people at work through what first appears as a simple delivery process but we learned was actually quite complex. The ‘dabba’ is the stainless steel tiffin box, about 15cm in diameter and 30cm high. Some people carry it themselves from their home to the office. Most do not.
While they are at work, the housewives or designated cooks prepare a healthy, delicious lunch. The ‘dabbawala’ (the transporter) picks it up, usually during the late morning (10am) and starts the process that delivers it to them at the office for a fixed monthly fee. They are delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back. The 2013 film (Bollywood) The Lunchbox was based on the dabbawala service.
The dabbas, or delivered lunches come in large circular metal tins that more closely resemble small milk pails. The practice not only saves money by avoiding expensive eateries, but many prefer the food. They are getting food they are used to and often there’s a fear of getting ill from food cooked outside. Each dabba comes in two, three or four tiers; the bottom is the largest, with rice, while the others include a curry, a side of vegetables, dal and flatbreads and a dessert.
A total of 200,000 dabbas are moved daily in Mumbai by an estimated 5,000 dabbawalas. It is a complex system that was developed 127 years ago and involves labeling them using a system of colors, symbols and signs that denotes where the tiffin is picked up, which station it will be sent to and the final address of the owner. All instructions are hand painted. Many of the operators are illiterate but the operation is far from simple.
We saw a single Dabbawala collect as many as 30 tiffins, taken on crates and carried by bicycle through the very hectic streets to the nearest train station.
The tiffins travel on the train where at the other end, we saw the local dabbawalas pick them up for the next leg of the journey. They arrive punctually at lunch time, they are never late.
As well as being delivered, the dabbas are also returned post-lunch where the whole system is reversed. The system was invented by Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, a Parsi banker, who came up with the idea of delivered lunches in 1890. He initially hired someone to deliver his lunch to him, and noticed that others around him were envious of his home cooked meal. It was the beginnings of a modern business. Today there are approximately 5,000 dabbawalas in Mumbai alone. They are said to be the lifeline of the city.
The dabbawala is seen as an honorable profession. A large number of dabbawalas come from the close knit community of Maharashtra. The next generation of dabbawalas will likely be their sons. We did not see any women dabbawalas but understand that they do all the cooking.
The system itself works so well that it has been studied by Harvard Business School. See Harvard study. FedEx is said to be envious.
The Mumbai Dhobi Ghat Laundry
Constructed in 1890, Dhobi Ghat, located next to the Mahalaxmi railway station, is said to be the world’s largest outdoor laundry. It is also the one that comes to mind when you talk about the ‘Dhobi Ghat’ in Mumbai. ‘Dhobi’ means washer person and ‘Ghat’ means ‘a slope toward the river’. There are many ‘Dhobi Ghats’ in Mumbai. The number of Dhobis in India is estimated to be approximately 400,000. We visited two, the first is the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat and the second is the Dhobi Ghat near the Cuffe Parade, officially unnamed.
The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat was first established by the British to wash military uniforms. The name, given by the British in the late 19th century means riverbank, as the washers or Dhobis always went to the river to wash clothes.
There are rows of concrete wash pens (300), each with its own stone for flogging. The washers work in the open to clean clothes and linens from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. For 18 to 20 hours each day, over 7,000 people flog, scrub, dye and bleach clothes on concrete wash pens, dry them on ropes, neatly press them and transport the garments to different parts of the city.
Over 100,000 clothes are washed each day. Some of the wealthier dhobis have installed large mechanical washing and drying machines but most of the work is still done by hand. The dhobis collect clothes from all corners of the city.
We were told that what happens is the Dhobi rents a square with a stone. It costs them approximately five dollars a month as a rental fee. Many of them are migrant workers, where a typical day starts at 3:30 or 4 in the morning. At around 9am they told us they have breakfast. Even the breakfast here is amazing. It is a united effort where everybody helps with the preparation, someone actually kneads the dough for bread, somebody chops the vegetables, etc. By 11am they have to start drying the clothes before the sun gets too harsh.
Everybody has their own set of clients. We are not sure if this is true but we were told that there are a few millionaire Dhabis.
We must confess, the first impression is one of disarray. How does each piece of clothing get back to its rightful owner amidst this chaos? We were informed that there is actually a very efficient system in place, which has led to the laundromat’s success over the years.
The washing, sorting, and ironing is a streamlined process that begins by having a written code at the back of each garment. It is unique system of marking clothes used by the uneducated, illiterate where ‘dots and dashes’ (likened to Braille) record the street, house, flat and family to which a garment belongs. Apparently the system is so accurate that the police can use laundry codes to identify the bodies of murder victims.
The dhabis gave us an informal tour of the place and shared stories with us, anecdotes about their trade. Dhobi Ghat garnered a Guinness Book of World Records entry under ‘most people hand-washing clothes at a single location’ in 2011.
What this blog does not discuss
Mondisti Mumbai Trip Tips
- Mumbai is a huge city with organic places to visit.
- The city has many fish markets but the Sassoon Docks are the oldest and a treat to experience. Go as early as possible so you can see the fish auction, around 5am.
- The Mumbai Dabbawalas are a legend in the city, try and position yourself around the railway stops at lunch time if you want to see them scurry about.
- The Dhobi Ghat at Maharashtra or outdoor laundry is an iconic fixture of the city, fascinating to see. The earlier you get there the better if you want to see them washing. However, the later afternoon is good also as the clothes are hung up drying, a very colourful scene.
- The city has some wonderful heritage buildings and although not part of this blog, definitely worth seeing.