Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat: human zoo?

The ‘open air laundry’ at Mahalaxmi has long been popular among foreign tourists looking for a piece of quintessential India. I decided to see for myself what the fuss is all about.

I should have felt confident in my crisp white kurta, but I stepped in with much reluctance- it seemed rather intrusive to ‘sightsee’ the daily chores of the dhobis (washermen), I walked in anyway.  The seemingly endless rows of concrete troughs (which you can also see if you peer down from the Mahalaxmi bridge) look absolutely like the tourist photographs or film scenes. The plethora of colours, the diligence of the dhobis, the flawless organised chaos spread over 23 acres is exactly as one would expect.

In my growing up years, I have spent some time doing voluntary work for the less privileged in India and I believed that I have ‘witnessed’ poverty.  The concept of manually soaking, thrashing and drying clothes is not at all alien to me. Despite that, I came back overwhelmed.

When I was penning down my experience for this blog I started wondering how it might feel to be that dhobi, who makes less money in an year than the price of the camera he is posing for? Wealthy visitors (usually white skinned) gawking at him as though he were an animal in a zoo. Does he feel disgusted and helpless or has he come to peace with it?

And how is it to be that tourist? Is this simply entertainment for him, probably just a check mark on his to-do list? In as little as Rs100 (less than $2) a guided tour of the ‘photogenic’ Dhobi Ghat is value for money, right? To assuage his guilt he may call it a ‘learning experience’, he may believe that he has really ‘seen’ the other life and then? he returns back to his comfortable life.


There could be a debate on this, however I don’t seem to find any convincing reason to allow poverty tourism. What angered me most is the government’s take on this : the civic administration is spending a whooping Rs2.4 crores (about $450 000) to revamp the Dhobi Ghat and make it more ‘tourist-friendly’! Among other things there are plans to create a viewing gallery. “As the Dhobi Ghat is dilapidated and in shambles, tourists prefer to view the place from a distance. The viewing gallery will help them get a better look,” said an official involved with its restoration. (As told to The Indian Express)


Of course, the government will justify their actions saying the conditions of the dhobis will also be improved (it will be more like a by-product anyway). I strongly doubt that this kind of slum tourism does anything to alleviate the dwellers’ problems.

If this kind of tourism has to continue: at the least, each paisa of any revenue made from ogling at these dhobis should be rightfully given back to them. Currently there is a tour company which is thriving solely on poverty tourism! Can we not have a ‘dhobi cooperative’ that manages and runs this instead?  It should not be a difficult task for these meticulous and efficient dhobis who faultlessly manage about 2,00,000 clothes every day.

The revenue from such tours and from the innumerable shoots that happen here can then be truly used for uplifting the lives of these dhobis.

Else, it is just not fair, no?

PS: I am not assuaging my guilt by just writing this blog, but till I can find a solution I wanted to share this.


22 thoughts on “Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat: human zoo?

  1. Very righteous, I share your thought here. The dhobi will continue to be a dhobi and the administration will walk away with income. If the dhobi’s are being the models then they should be paid equally.

  2. Reblogged this on HarsH ReaLiTy and commented:
    Exactly what I was looking for and thanks for sharing a current event from your country! This is exactly the type of article I was hoping for. -OM
    Note: Comments disabled here, please comment on their post.

  3. I love how your spirit was moved and responded to the dhobis’ situation. I experienced a similar encounter when I visited Manila 30 years ago…there was this river by a park and half-naked little children were swimming and wading there, and they would swarm together like small shoals of tiny fishes to where the coins were being flung down by passing tourists. I felt so sad and couldn’t bring myself to do the same – it seemed so wrong somehow. But the children were happy to catch the coins as that meant money to buy them their meal for the day. So did I do right by not flinging down a coin?

    • I guess those kids couldn’t care less, but flinging coins is so disrespectful!
      I too wouldn’t have flung a coin at them. One cent contribution is definitely not going to improve their situation. If people who threw coins at them really cared, they should have done more. Right?

  4. This is so powerful — and truly a general problem beyond this specific situation that just highlights it so well. The injustice of it all! And all any one of us can do is choose one piece to work on, because each piece is so big, and there are so many. Thanks for this.

    By the way, I want to emphasize the word justice. Too often people want to assuage their own guilt, or build their own feelings of superiority, by offering [demeaning] charity. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help wherever we can, but I believe the ultimate goal is justice.

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