The Dhobi Khana in Fort Kochi is one of the few places in the State where the traditional method of laundry exists

Every Sunday Satish S., a software testing engineer at a private firm in Ernakulam carries his weekly laundry to the Dhobi Khana at Veli, Fort Kochi. He gets into one of the 42 washing cubicles and does his laundry by the traditional method. He is one from the 50 families of the Vannar Sangham, a washerman society, who have been doing laundry here “since the 1920s.” On weekdays, at the same site, Mani, with a turban around his head, stands in ankle-deep water in a cement pit. He beats the clothes on a jutting stone as if mindlessly. As visitors click snapshots of this disappearing way of life Mani flashes a toothy smile. Kumaresan in the adjacent cubicle steps out of the water tub. “I have worked on ships too,” he says “but now I am here. We pay Rs. 10 to the society for using the facilities here.”

‘All the Rajani fans’

The quaint Dhobi Khana is the only place in Kerala and one of the few places in the country where the traditional method of laundry continues. It is also one of the most photographed sites with droves of tourists clicking keepsake images of men and women who pursue an uncommon lifestyle. “Now only 20 per cent of the youngsters from our community continue in this profession. Most of them are educated and find white collar jobs,” says Satish, a young man who has struck a conscious balance between his ancestral livelihood and his urban lifestyle.

As secretary of the Dhobi Khana he has been instrumental in organising the work and lives of the people from his community.

It was in 1976 that the GCDA (Greater Cochin Development Authority) built the existing structure after the Veli Maidan, with its ponds, was taken over to build a stadium. The community proposed the design of the Dhobi Khana that now stands over three acres on one side of the ground. Inside the walled premises are barrack like rooms to store the laundry, a long, common shed for ironing and drying during the rainy season, two large wells, washing cubicles and sun-filled courtyards with symmetrical clotheslines. Inside, is also a tiny world of “all the Rajani fans” who have pasted posters of the legendary Tamil actor in declaration of their love for him. Satish says with a smile, “It was his birthday last month and we put up the posters”.

In the ironing shed the dhobis (washermen) are immersed silently in their work. The blue tin dryers rattle to life only during the rains. Eighty-six-year-old Shanmugham is ironing and folding starched white shirts. He has been working here since the age of 18. The eight-and-a-half kilogram iron box that he uses is 45 years old brought from Sri Lanka. His technique of ironing is watched keenly by a group of impressed visitors. They ask him about the old times. “I don’t remember a thing,” he says and goes back to his work. Sixty-eight-year-old Pratti with a glittering nose pin and gold earrings is all smiles. Her son and husband work here. She remembers the old times and says that the rains upset their work earlier. “After the sangham was formed and the Dhobi Khana came up we have regular and systematised work.” She still uses coconut shells to heat the iron.

In the shed also lie heaps of bundled laundry. They are from hospitals, hotels and homestays. There is the old boiler system of heating water and there is electricity too for use. The dhobis have a choice and pay accordingly.

Modernising the laundry

If the Vannar Sangham has organised the work of the dhobis it has also helped the 180 families who stay in little row houses on ‘Dhobi Street’ close by in their day-to-day living. A small park with colourful swing, slide and see-saw was thoughtfully put up inside the premises for the children of the dhobis engaged in work. There are rest rooms, a common room with indoor games and an outdoor badminton court too. A few from the community who have bought cars park them here. There is a delivery van whose services can be used. “They get big orders from cruise ships, hotels and hospitals. The vehicle is good to fetch and carry the laundry,” says Satish. He shows a new music system in his office that will soon be installed in the shed.

At Dhobi Street the community gathers at festivals in the two temples dedicated to Mariamman and Subramaniam. “In August we have our main festival ‘Mulakottu’,” says Satish.

Literacy has brought jobs and with it prosperity and a new way of life. The traditional way will end with the few elderly men and women who pursue it with pride. Satish is wary of the future and senses an impending loss of a rare, hand-washed, sun-dried and clean lifestyle.

And so he plans, with the rest, to modernise the Dhobi Khana. “We are going to install washing machines, dryers, steam irons, and all the modern methods of laundry,” he says hopeful about a sunny future for his people.

THE VANNARS OF VELI

* The Vannars were brought to Cochin by the Dutch after the Maharaja of Cochin granted them permission for settlement, which dates their arrival to around 300 years ago. They were brought to do the laundry for the Dutch soldiers

* The Veli Maidan, called Mainath Veli was known for laundry work

* Spread in roughly eight acres the maidan had 72 ponds for the 100 families who did the washing

* The Vannar families came from parts of Tamil Nadu and Malabar