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.
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.
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.
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