Twilight Time for a Once-Vital Village Industry

loading Dhoby Ghaut is where Penang's last traditional Indian laundry service operators are located.

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Surrounded by a quaint mix of 1980s terrace rows, mint bungalows and semi-detached houses, the unassuming Dhoby Ghaut village can be found at the confluence of Waterfall River and Air Itam River. The village, also known as “Vannan Thora Tedal”, was home to over a hundred traditional Indian laundry service operators in its heyday.

Today, only seven are left.

“Dhoby Ghaut” is derived from the Hindi words “dhobi”, which means washerman, and “ghaut”, which refers to a wide set of steps descending into a river. Historically, dhobis would spend hours scrubbing stubborn stains off clothes along the river with the sun beating down on them. The manual washing process was not complete without the repeated flogging of clothes on a concrete slab to pull the dirt out of them – much like a human-powered washing machine.

All over the region, the tradition of Indian laundries is losing out to automation and development. In Mumbai, the largest open-air laundry in the world, the Dhobi Ghat, is recognised as a heritage site. While the livelihoods of thousands of washermen are made here, Dhobi Ghat is at risk of losing its heritage status due to the encroachment of development on its surrounding area.1

In Singapore, only one laundry shop is left practising the traditional manual method of washing dhotis and sarees.2 In Ipoh, a small community of dhoby wallas (Indian washerman) can still be found at Jalan Silibin.3
Dhoby Ghaut in George Town is not spared – all but one dhobi in the village have transitioned from the manual method of washing to modern-day machines.

A.Raman, 56, is the third and last generation practising the manual method in this village. He is keeping the 60-year-old business alive, but it may not survive past his time. “My son will not continue this business, nor is the younger generation here interested. They have found better opportunities elsewhere,” Raman says nonchalantly. He is well aware of the realities.

A typical day for Raman starts early in the morning, when he separates the clothes by colours and types of fabric before the washing process begins. By late afternoon, he cooks up a cleaning mixture of detergent and caustic soda in a custom-made cast iron skillet rested upon a hand-built concrete oven, fired up by burning wood. When the temperature is right, in goes the white veshtis and sarees which are left to boil for approximately 30 minutes with the occasional stirring.

When the boiling process is done, piles and piles of steaming hot clothes are transferred to a nearby washing pen with a wheelbarrow. Here, his worker proceeds to flog the clothes against a concrete slab. Before the final rinse, the clothes are starched and soaked in indigo dye, a fabric whitener that keeps the clothes dazzlingly white.

“This is easy work for me because I love my job,” says Raman when quizzed on his determination in maintaining the laborious method of washing. “This tradition was handed down by my father and I wish to continue it,” he adds.

A. Raman prefers to maintain the tradition of manual washing.

Raman serves a wide range of clients, not only on the island, but the mainland as well – from doctors and lawyers to businessmen with titles. Some of his clients were inherited from his father and the older clients’ children have subsequently continued to support Raman’s trusty, diligent service.

However, new customers are difficult to come by and Raman depends on word of mouth to keep his business going. While some customers swear by the manual method of washing, claiming that it is more hygienic and causes less wear and tear to their clothes, to others, the cumbersome process seems absurd compared to faster and cheaper automated methods.

So why do Indian dhobis persist in keeping the tradition alive, when the odds are increasingly stacked against them? “It’s like a religion to me,” Raman says.

The Matriarch of Dhoby Ghaut

Raman was referring to the strong ties between the generations of Indian dhobis in Dhoby Ghaut with the Sri Ramar Temple, which was built sometime prior to 1872, making it one of the oldest Hindu temples in Penang. It is situated on land donated by Ranee Dhoby, the matriarch of the dhobi community that settled along Air Itam River in the nineteenth century. This land was previously granted to Ranee in 1802 by the governor of Prince of Wales Island, Sir George Leith.4

Sri Ramar Temple symbolically anchored the Dhoby Ghaut community. Ranee went on to start the laundry business with the villagers, serving the governor and his officials at that time and providing hundreds of families a steady livelihood. In 1920 a trust deed was created and the temple was administered by the respective trustees and subsequently placed under the Mohammedan and the Hindu Endowment Board in 1930. Today, Sri Ramar Temple is under the full supervision of the Hindu Endowment Board.5

Ranee Dhoby’s body is believed to be buried at the temple grounds, honouring her contributions to the community. Even after Ranee’s passing, the dhobi business continued to thrive well into the 1980s, after which the demand for manual laundry service began to dwindle. Today, providing laundry service remains an integral part of Dhoby Ghaut’s identity. “It is what we do,” Raman says.

Raman's clients include lawyers, doctors and well-to-do businessmen.

Keeping the tradition alive

Some laundry service operators have managed to keep up with time. When Air Itam River became too polluted for the business of cleaning laundry, the dhobis built washing pens in their neighbourhood. Most of the operators subsequently moved on to adopt washing machines and tumble dryers to cater to market demands, although parts of the traditional method of washing, such as starching and soaking white clothes in indigo dye, was maintained.

In India, a group of young techies have found a way to bridge technology with tradition by developing an on-demand laundry service mobile app that allows Indian dhobis to tap into the urban market.6While such efforts are yet to be explored in Penang, a few dhobis have successfully expanded their business to cater to clients with larger bulk of laundries, such as hotels and hospitals. Such expansion efforts often require substantial investment involving hiring more workers and acquiring more equipment – a luxury most dhobis cannot afford in this village.

“You can’t revive this business,” M.Ramachandran, executive director of the Hindu Endowment Board, pessimistically says. “In time, automation will completely take over, especially when machines are getting cheaper and faster by the day,” he adds. As residents move out in search of better job opportunities and a more conducive housing environment, Indian laundries are not the only cultural element in the village at risk of extinction; the Dhoby Ghaut village in its entirety may soon disappear – just like in Singapore, where its own Dhoby Ghaut is just an MRT station named in memory of the island’s dhobi heritage.

With the support of the Hindu Endowment Board, there have been efforts in Penang to preserve the history and tradition of Dhoby Ghaut. Besides renovating the dilapidated original shrine structure of Ranee Dhoby Koil in 1982, the endowment board also built a larger structure surrounding the shrine with a memorial of Ranee Dhoby.

Details about the founding of Dhoby Ghaut and pre-war photos of the shrine can be found at the temple, ensuring temple devotees are kept informed of the rich history of Sri Ramar Temple. “We have reached out to the descendants of Ranee Dhoby, who are based in Australia now, to endorse a plaque declaring that Ranee was here [at Dhoby Ghaut] to be put up at Sri Ramar Temple,” says Ramachandran.

While the sight of dhobis hauling large, brightly coloured bundles of clothes on the backs of their motorcycles may soon be a thing of the past, such efforts will certainly immortalise the story of Ranee Dhoby and the glory days of the Indian laundries community.

Going against the grain, Stephanie Kee moved from bustling KL to laid-back Penang, where the "creative pulse" is said to be. With no prior background in the arts, she dove headfirst into exploring the complexities of a flourishing local arts scene, only to discover there’s more to Penang than meets the eye.

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4Sri Ramar Temple, Hindu Endowment Board
5Sri Ramar Temple, Hindu Endowment Board
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