Washing a City

Detergent, chlorine and the thrashing of flagstones; this is the Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest open-air laundromat, situated in India's financial capital, Mumbai.

Since its colonial beginnings in 1890, this sprawling 4 acre laundry has developed into an integral part of the city, servicing many of Mumbai’s businesses and employing over 7,500 workers who wash over 750,000 clothes on a daily basis.

In this #FutureofCities story, Sanjit Das takes a look at the vital washing service provided by the Dhobi people, observing how this seemingly antiquated tradition works for the modern world, enabling clean mats to be put on the tables of Mumbai restaurants and clean sheets to be used in the operating theatres of the city's busy hospitals.

  • 01. SDA02317IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 16, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 125)

    Tower blocks, under construction, loom over Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

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  • 02. SDA02318IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 9, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 160)

    ‘Dhobi’ washermen brush their teeth in Dhobighat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

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  • 03. SDA02319IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 9, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    A young ‘Dhobi’ washerman brushes his teeth while another worker passes him carrying a load of clothes to be washed in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 04. SDA02320IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    A ‘Dhobi’ washerman washes clothes in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyd

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 8, Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 160)

    Open fullscreen
  • 05. SDA02321IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    A woman sits outside her hut in Dhobi Ghat, where hundreds of families live doing the laundry work that they have made their living by for many generations. The Dhobi Ghat is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 06. SDA02322IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 14, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 160)

    Jeans and shirts are hung up to dry in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 07. SDA02323IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 9, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 160)

    A ‘Dhobi’ laundry person washes a delicate embroidered sari on a flogging stone in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 08. SDA02324IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    ‘Dhobi’ laundry people wash themselves before the day's work begins in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 09. SDA02325IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 7.1, Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 160)

    A ‘Dhobi’ washerman cleans himself while others work in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 10. SDA02326IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 5.6, Shutter: 1/100, ISO: 1600)

    Sanjay, a ‘Dhobi’ washerman, seeks a little breeze while he speaks on the phone in a building in the Dhobi Ghat where cauldrons of water and chemicals are brought to the boil on open fires. The Dhobi Ghat is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 11. SDA02327IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 14, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    ‘Dhobi’ laundry people wash hospital uniforms in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners

    Open fullscreen
  • 12. SDA02328IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 14, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    A man hangs out cloths to dry in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 13

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 3.5, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 320)

    A man irons uniforms in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 14. SDA02330IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 4.5, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 640)

    A man chops vegetables for a meal in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 15. SDA02331IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 16, Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 160)

    Men working in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 16. SDA02332IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 16, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 1000)

    Men working in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 17. SDA02333IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 9, Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 160)

    Men working in the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 18. SDA02334IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 16, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 800)

    Sanjay (centre) and his two colleagues sort and fold saris in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 19. SDA02335IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 7.1, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 800)

    ‘Dhobi’ washermen gather to cook rotis for breakfast in Dhobi Ghat. This is an open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen
  • 20. SDA02336IND

    Sanjit Das

    Mumbai

    Sony α7S, Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, (F-Stop: 8, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 160)

    An aerial view of the Dhobi Ghat; the open-air laundromat where India’s ‘Dhobi' people wash laundry for all strata of the city's society. From hospital sheets to hospitality tablecloths, from garment factory pieces to the everyday items from people's homes, the workers in the Dhobi Ghat wash the material by hand, dry it and return it to its owners.

    Open fullscreen

Sanjit Das, Mumbai

When you walk down the stairs into the Dhobi Ghat, you are hit by the smell of washing detergent and pungent chlorine, while the synchronized sound of thrashing flagstones punctuates the atmosphere.

This is the Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest open-air laundromat, situated in India's financial capital, Mumbai. 

Established by the British East Indian Company in 1890 - it originally served as a mass laundry for military uniforms, going on to serve British and Parsi households.

As time passed and India’s political landscape evolved, the Dhobi washermen’s clientele changed, with the Dhobi Ghat now primarily serving the city's hospitals, restaurants and garment factories. The Dhobi Ghat’s technologies have evolved over time too, with automatic washing machines now employed to deal with large orders in combination with the traditional hand washing techniques.

Still, some things never change, one such fact being that the Dhobis start work early each day. Very early. Each day, once the clothes are washed and dried, the Dhobis iron them ready to be packed and dispatched to different locations across the city.

In an economic landscape where Mumbai now ranks higher than Paris for ultra-rich homebuyers, the sprawling Dhobi Ghat has (so far), remarkably managed to stave off international property developers, maintaining its status as an integral, cultural and functional institution in the heart of the city.

The Dhobis are not the actual owners of their property in the Dhobi Ghat. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) charges a rent of Rs. 293 ($4.6) a month - however it can only be rented to the Kanojia community, the community of Dhobis from Uttar Pradesh in North India. Though the workforce is still predominantly from the same community of Dhobi people, we are now seeing some workers from different castes and community groups working together at the ghat.

About Sanjit Das

Sanjit’s primary interest lies in documenting social issues as seen through the backdrop of an emerging economy’s changing social, economic and political landscape. Sanjit has spent a considerable amount of time recording India’s shift from a rural economy to one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in the world.

His work is focused on documenting the lives and conditions of those being overlooked by this sweeping modernization.

When not covering issues on the field, Sanjit lives in Kuala Lumpur.

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