Man beating white cloth
Culture & tradition,  Just One Person,  Kerala

A dhobi wallah in Fort Cochi, Kerala

At the Dhobi Khana in Fort Cochi, Kerala, nothing much has changed since the first Tamil dhobis were brought in by the Dutch Army 300 years ago to wash their uniforms. Today it is still operated by descendants of those original families, who live and work here as they have done for generations.

A dhobi (our guide called them dhobi wallahs) is a washerman or washerwoman. They come from a specific caste whose traditional occupation was washing clothes. This dhobi khana is run by the Vannar community of Tamil Nadu. It is the last remaining public laundry facility in the old city, established in 1720; although the present-day facility was built in 1976 as compensation for land taken to be used as a public playground.

The dhobis do their own family wash here, alongside items they are paid to clean. These clothes and household linens come from both hotels and private homes. Our guide told us that many who can afford it like to have their white goods washed traditionally rather than by machine.

Washing

The area where they work is divided into three sections. In one is a series of small stone cells, each numbered and for use by a specific dhobi wallah. Here they do the washing, the first task of their working day. Usually men wash, while women help them dry and iron the clothes, but we did see a few women washing.

They still use the traditional methods. The clothes are soaked in water mixed with detergent for some time. Anything particularly dirty is washed by beating on the stones. For starching, rice water is used as it is considered to be much more effective than commercially available starches.

Drying

Beyond the washing cells is a field where the washed items are hung out to dry. The fabric is deftly twisted into the hanging ropes with no need for clothes pegs.

Rows of drying washing and man carrying cloth
Drying field
Man carrying white cloth
Clean and dry – now for the ironing

Ironing

The third section is a long open-sided stone room with stone slabs along each side, where the pressing is done, usually in the afternoon after the morning’s washing has dried. Many of the dhobi wallahs still use the traditional charcoal irons which are very heavy at around eight kilos. We were invited to pick one up to feel the weight for ourselves! Some of these irons were brought from Sri Lanka decades ago.

But as in many other places, most of those washing at the dhobi khana are of an older generation, and theirs is a dying skill. Young people aren’t interested in taking on such heavy work. They want to study hard, take office or professional jobs, and leave the traditions of the past behind. The dhobi khana may soon be redundant.

You are allowed to take photos here but please do make a donation to their welfare fund in return, as suggested; there is a box near the entrance for this purpose. And next time you throw the family wash into the machine, think of these dhobi wallahs, including my featured Person from Around the World.

I visited Fort Cochi in 2017

14 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    I wonder if those people at work think it’s odd for you to photograph them washing… The physical labor in villages goes on as it has for centuries. One wonders when modern conveniences will reach them. Interesting story.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I suspect it’s quite normal for them. Fort Cochi is visited by a lot of tourists and it was a local guide who brought us here, we didn’t wander in by ourselves (although you easily could). The fact that they have a donations box suggests they expect it!

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Oh my, what a post! It’s amazing to learn all about people from all over the world! What hard work and the realization of why things are invented! I have my great grandmothers iron! It is sooooooo heavy too! These women must have had daunting arms! It will be sad in a way (but not probably for them) but maybe so, because this tradition will no longer be known about once these people are gone! Those clothes look much cleaner than anything we get from the washer! Especially the whites! AND I haven’t ironed in years! I love starched shirts though! Cady

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Cady 🙂 Yes, I have mixed feelings about the possible future decline of the Dhobi Khana. In one way it is sad when the traditions and skills of the past are lost because younger generations are less interested in them. On the other hand, this is a hard life that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

  • SandyL

    An interesting post Sarah. I’ve seen irons like those but only as museum pieces in ‘pioneer villages’ from 1800s. I can’t say I regret dhobi wallahs fading into redundancy. It looks like hard labor & I can’t blame younger folks for wanting a better way of living.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sandy. I think you’re right not to regret the passing of the dhobi wallah, although I wonder to what extent the still-active (sadly) caste system may hold these families back from taking other opportunities?

      • SandyL

        I have heard that in the big cities the caste system is not as rigidly applied as in the smaller villages. In that respect the younger people have better prospects. Even so, I imagine that it is hard to outrun such a in grown cultural belief.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I think so, and of course for the higher castes, who control much of the country’s infrastructure and government, there is a vested interest in holding on to the system. Our guide in Jaisalmer was a Brahmin, the superior priestly caste. He had to a degree turned away from the system by choosing to work as a tour guide, which he told us he much preferred, but you could tell from his conversation that a sense of superiority was ingrained in him even though he was a genuinely nice guy. There were things he just didn’t question.

  • margaret21

    As ever, these are lovely studies of people about their usual daily business. The only thing I have in comparison is of a town in Spain, near the French border (and I can’t remember its name!) where the public wash-house was in daily use, because the local hot springs fed constant hot water for free. It was clearly a place of hard work and good fellowship, and the people doing the washing weren’t only the older women. .

    • Sarah Wilkie

      And as ever, thank you very much Margaret 🙂 I’ve seen those European public wash houses too, e.g. in Bergamo, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in use. I also saw one once in Guatemala, in a village near Antigua, but only one or two people were using it, it wasn’t the hive of activity we saw here, or that you describe.

  • Nemorino

    This does look like hard work. I’ll think of these people the next time I put a load of wash in the washing machine.

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