History & Culture

Survivors of time: Chetpet Dhobikhana — The century-old Dhobi Ghat

WASH ZONE Work on at the Chetpet Dhobikhana Photo: R. Ravindran  

At the Chetpet Dhobikhana hens and chickens rummage in the soapy waters around the ironing shed and washing areas even as its residents grapple with water and electricity shortage. Water pumps stand redundant in a corner, the air rings with the sound of clothes slapping stone and the smell of detergent from the starched whites and wrung-out bed sheets permeates the surroundings. Life has come a long way for the families that occupy Chennai's oldest dhobikhana.

Among the earliest mentions of dhobis is a line from the Vestiges of Old Madras — 1640-1800 . ‘On the North are two great gates (Tom Clarke's Gate on Popham's Broadway and Mud Point Gate opposite Thambi Chetti Street) of Brick, and one (Armenian Bridge Gate near the Fort station) on the west, where they wade over the river (a stream that flowed down from Broadway across the Esplanade to join the North River, which has now been reduced to a drain) to the Washermens Town', the locality where the Company's cotton cloth was bleached prior to export. There is also a mention in the Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume of a Washers Street, which is today's Mint Street, where calico washers used to stay.

When Chintadrepettah was founded in the early 1900s, it was mainly a weavers' village. Export of calico cloth had reduced and Governor Morton Pitt decided to improve calico printing in Madras by importing weavers and spinners. The peninsula formed by a loop of the Triplicane river was chosen and only spinners, weavers, painters, washers and dyers were admitted.

Started on December 8, 1902 by Sir George Moore (after whom Moore Market gets its name), who was the president of the Madras Corporation at that time, the Dhobikhana provided facilities to the dhobis who inhabited the area. “Our ancestors were already using the area to wash people's clothes. Moore decided to provide us a place with water and washing stones,” says V. Ramachandran, a third-generation dhobi and president of the Chennai Rajaka Yuvajana (Sakavaiyalar) Sangam.

“Now, we start work by 4 a.m. and it goes on till 6 a.m. in the morning. That's when we're at our busiest,” he says.

With its 128 washing stones and restrooms, three ironing sheds and a Metro Water supply that is exclusive to this dhobikhana, parts of this 20-ground washing area retains its old-world charm. “It's the same families who have been living here since the beginning. We've been getting Metro Water through a pipeline since this place was set up, but now water is scarce,” says Ramachandran.

“Earlier, we washed thousands of clothes a day. Now, with scarce water and electricity, we wash just over 1,000 clothes on a good day. When the water supply is very less, we can barely finish about 200 or 300.”

This dhobikhana thrives on orders from hospitals, hotels and salons. “When our forefathers ran this dhobikhana, most of our customers were British and we would cater to the bungalows in and around the area. Now, the bungalows are no more and individual houses have washing machines or employ domestic help. We only receive bulk orders from hospitals or hotels,” he adds.

In the early 1980s, the washing area went through a renovation. “Some of the older, daintier structures were demolished and rebuilt by the Government. We were given more rooms and now have a few terraces where we dry the clothes.”

Four generations down, the families seem to have no other option but to continue the trade. “When I passed out of school, I applied for jobs and never got one. This was something I knew since I was a child and decided I'll continue with it,” says Ramachandran.

Dhobikhanas came to the limelight recently when Arya played a dhobi in the movie “Madrasapattinam”. “There are about 1,500 dhobis in this khana alone and Chennai has about 14 dhobikhanas in all,” says Ramachandran. “But we do not have enough space to accommodate all the members of the families. And with the rising prices, I don't know how much longer we can cope. A bar of soap which cost a rupee a few years ago now costs Rs.5. Similarly, we need soap oil and washing liquid, apart from electricity for ironing. I don't even want to talk about coal. It costs Rs. 35 a kilo while a few years ago we could get it for Rs. 12. Life has become difficult,” rues Ramachandran.

SOME OTHERS The Saidapet Dhobikhana is the second oldest in the city and is about four acres in size. Situated on the banks of the Adyar River, the dhobikhana has about 150 families. In Mylapore, opposite Vivekananda College is a small dhobikhana. One can see lines of clothes hanging along the sides of the road and this particular washing area started functioning in 1952.

Old Washermanpet is a 15-ground property where about 70 families of dhobis live. While the families have been working here since the 1920s, the dhobikhana came into existence much later. Vannanthurai in Adyar has over 100 dhobis and comes under the Chennai Corporation.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 4:00:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/survivors-of-time-chetpet-dhobikhana-the-centuryold-dhobi-ghat/article3276981.ece

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