Interesting Information about Indian WASHERMAN (DHOBY) (Post No.3454)

Compiled by London swaminathan


Date: 16 December 2016


Time uploaded in London:- 12-59


Post No.3454



Pictures are taken from different sources; thanks.




A Washerman is called Dhoby in North India and Vannan in Tamil Nadu. In Malabar the females this class wash the clothes and the men have taken to the trade of tailoring, or to the profession of devil dancing.


The Vannan is called, in consideration of his innumerable and unscrupulous services, ‘the son of the village’. He washes all the clothes of both the men and women, his wife assisting him in some parts of his work. When she goes to fetch the clothes from the women’s apartments, the women of the house receive the daughter of the village’ warmly, and entertain her with interesting conversation for a few minutes; then they give her a little oil with which to anoint her head, and feed her with a cold meal. Sometimes they also give her some home-made cakes to take back with her to her children. The washerwoman leaves the house highly pleased. She carries the soiled clothes of the women hooked on a stick, lest she should be contaminated by the touch of them. She takes the things to the fuller’s ground, at a pool, or river, or tank, and submits them to a regular process of cleansing. First she throws each article into the water and sets it aside. Then she herself plunges into the water, in order to remove any defilement which she may have contracted in graces. She then places all she has collected in the heap of other soiled clothes from the village which her husband had brought. The dhoby as a rule does not consider himself to be polluted in ordinay cases  when he carries the soiled clothes.


The dhoby has his house in some corner of the village, and it is built on a piece of ground belonging to the village. The walls of his house  are raised at the expense of the  village people, and they themselves pay for the thatched roof. They also contribute to the purchase of a spirited donkey or two.


Of useful household articles the dhoby has hardly any; only a few earthen vessels in which to cook his food, and to serve for washing purposes.


His business apparatus consists of only a few large earthen pots, and these are filled with water and placed on an oven, which is built of mud, and in a triangular shape. This oven is heated whenever he wants the soiled clothes to be steamed. Before they are steamed he dips them over and over again in the alkaline water, which is obtained by him at very little cost. This alkaline water is nothing more than a mixture of pure water with fuller’s earth, or washing soda. When the process of steaming is done, the dhoby and his children start off at about four o’clock in the morning to the fuller’s ground.


Donkey Work!


The poor, uncared-for donkeys move about in the dull streets and waste lands of the village all the other days and nights except the night in which the dhoby intends to start for his work. The unfed beasts are then made to carry the heavy loads of wet clothes. The moment they are loaded they start off in advance from the house of their unkind master as they know well the place of destination, and the way to it is quite familiar to them. The dhoby with his children follow them, each carrying a heavy load on his back, and even on his head. As the dhoby passes through the streets he cheers his beasts by whistling, and uttering encouraging words such as these Podaa saami ie, Go, master Maanam kappattudaa,’ i e., Save my reputation Karuttua  Dorai Ayya ie… black gentleman! Nadadaa  singam, ie,  Walk as a lion.’ When he reaches the water-side — this is often a good distance away — first he throws off his own load, removes the loads off the backs of his beasts and pasture.


In cases where there are fields in cultivation, one of the grown-up children of the dhoby minds the brutes while they are grazing. Then the dhoby unties the bundle of clothes. and keeps them within his reach near water, where the rough stones are kept, for bleaching. He takes up a cloth in his hand and dips it in the water, and beats it against the stone, with an invocation to his God, the common Father. Then he places the cloth on the stone raises his right hand to his forehead, as he stands in a bending attitude, in order to indicate that he seeks the benediction of the Heaven to rest upon the labours of the day.


The work of a dhoby in an Indian village is tedious and difficult. He has to cleanse from two to three hundred cloths of various lengths and breadths, many of them in an exceedingly dirty state. He beats in cloth after cloth with his full strength on the coarse stones. His children also share the work of their father, taking for their part the tiny clothes of children like themselves.

Composing and Singing Songs!

While he is beating the cloths he sings songs of his own making, or that were made by his forefathers. These are very peculiar in their composition, and they are quite uninteresting to anyone beside himself. There is in them no melody, and there is not even any beating of time. He sings in praise of his ass, or of his wife, or he narrates his love, patience, earnestness, in relation to his sweetheart before his marriage. Sometimes he sings in praise of father-in-law. Sometimes it is a mournful song about an old and faithful ass which he has recently lost.


While the dhoby is busily engaged with the  clothes, his wife will turn up carrying a potful of cold food, which she has been obtaining from the village folk during the previous night. Every house in the village is bound to give  twice daily a handful of cooked food, either made of rice, millet, maize or some other Indian grain. She also carries a second small vessel, which is filled with Indian vegetables and greens. These have also been given to her by the villagers.

Dhoby Wages!

A dhoby receives as wages from every village house an average of six pence per annum. If in the house there is a large family the wages are increased to a shilling per annum (written in the year 1897).


Besides this allowance, he gets a small gift of grains, probably  a few measures, at the time of harvest. If he goes to the fields when they gather the crops, he also will get a small bundle of ears. At wedding festivities and at funerals he is entitled to a fee of four pence. When the villagers offer a blood-sacrifice to the gods, they generally kill a fat ram by severing the head from the body, and this head goes to the waiting dhoby as a part of his wages. In some villages the dhoby is used as a messenger to communicate ominous intelligence to the parties concerned. For this he gets, in the form of gold and silver bangles, or a pair of new cloths, or a pagoda, about the value of four shillings. This is all that the dhoby receives in the form of wages.


Faithful Wife used as a Pillow!

Now let us turn back to the place where we left the dhoby washing the clothes. He has been beating them against the stone one after another, from early morning until 10 a.m., and he is now quite exhausted, and quite ready for his morning meal. The wife, who has brought his meal, joins her husband, and the children also partake of it. They all sit on the grassy slope of the riverside or pool. The dhoby and his children sit facing the woman, who holds the earthen pot in her hand. They fold their hands together, so as to serve them instead of a cup, and the watery meal is poured into their hands. The woman first stirs up the contents of the earthen pot with her right hand, and adds some butter milk and salt. This luxurious food satisfies the tired and hungry dhoby and his children, and refreshes them so that they cheerfully resume their work. The woman after serving the meal to her husband and children supplies her husband with betel-nut, chunnam, and tobacco to chew having received these, sits beside his wife, and gossips with her, while she helps herself to the remaining food. When she has done the dhoby lays his head on her lap and rests awhile.


She relates to him some incidents of the village life which have recently come to her knowledge. In half an hour the dhoby and his wife, with their children, get up to resume their work. They hurry on the bleaching of the clothes till 2 pm, then they begin to wash the beaten clothes in a large earthen pot, which is filled with pure water. In this small portion of indigo is dissolved, or a little piece of lime. In this mixture all the clothes are dipped and rinsed well. Then they undergo another process of dipping in a similar pot filled with water, in which a small quantity of starch, prepared from rice or other Indian grain, has been put. This process makes the clothes somewhat stiff. All these processes cleanse the clothes very thoroughly. If the clothes are new they have to go twice through all these processes, and in addition to this they are also dipped in water mixed with cow-dung or goat-dung. This process gives the clothes a smart appearance.


Most of the villagers wear white clothes, consisting of a pair of cloths of three or three and a half yards each. Some of them have also turbans or headpieces.


As the day is getting on the dhoby his wife and children now hurry off to dry the clothes either on grassy meads or sandy banks. At about three o’clock the dhoby and his family go up together to some shady banyan or margosa tree or tamarind tree; one or other of these is sure to be found near an Indian village. Here they partake remainder of the meal, seated in the manner which has been described. At about five o’clock they gather together the clothes and fold them up.


Now the children go to find the donkeys, who are to carry the loads of bleached clothes back again to their home. The dhoby and his wife bundles themselves carry bundles of clothes on their heads and on their backs; they go slowly back to their village.


The following morning the dhoby and his wife unloose the bundles of the  washed clothes, and arrange them for delivery; both of them are very busy making up the piles according to the marks on the clothes. As a rule, the dhobys are very skilful in sorting the clothes according to the marks given them. There is no such thing as the marking of the clothes by their owners with coloured threads or the initials of their names. All marks on clothes are made by the dhobys themselves, and they cannot usually write their own names. lf any one of the villagers is in a hurry for his bleached clothes he has to go to the door of the dhoby and fetch them for himself. Generally, the dhoby delivers at each house.


The Indian villagers never use linen or any form of dress that is made by tailors, and therefore there is no need for Ironing.


(This book was published in 1897)



Dhoby – the Torch Bearers!

The dhoby not only washes the clothes of the villagers, but he also provides them with torches, made out of the rags which he gathers and stores up from the worn-out clothes given to him. These torches are generally used in festival and marriage processions and he also renders service by holding the torches on such occasions. The poor people of the village, by courting his friendship, get from him Maathu, the loan of cloths for little or nothing. At the time of funeral processions he spreads cloths on the way leading to the cremation ground. His services are also sought to decorate with cloths the roof of the Marriage pandal or booth.


on all these occasions he uses the cloths of the villagers. When the village dramas are held in the open-air at night he spreads on the ground a few bleached cloths for the more respectable men of the village.


The “son of the village, who is fed by the villagers , has also the privilege of clothing himself, as well as his family, with the clothes of the villagers. To-day he turns up in a new attire which he has got from Mr. A ……for washing; similarly his wife shines in the borrowed feathers of Mrs. C……; To morrow he walks in the street with the clothes of Mr. C and likewise his wife appears smart and tidily dressed with a beautiful sari or draping belonging to Mrs. R.


On the following day the husband and wife will carry all the clothes in which they dressed themselves on the previous day to the fuller’s ground, and will cover themselves with their worn-out ordinary clothes in a state next to rags. If any of the owners see these common children of the village wearing their clothes they take no notice of it. The village dhoby, who has this privilege of wearing other people’s clothes, has also the free use of the village clothes as his bedding. It is evident, therefore, that it costs little or nothing to maintain himself and his family.


The fuller’s ground becomes the centre for several villagers, and to it the young unmarried men and the young maids go to wash the clothes of their respective villages. These young people have thus opportunities of knowing one another better, and of forming close friendships. They cannot, however, have private conversations about their matrimonial affairs. Supposing the young man A has a tender regard for the young maid C, he sings some love songs while beating the clothes, and in these he describes to the best of his abilities the position, parentage, and beauty of the girl who probably stands close beside him, also beating clothes.  These love songs of the young dhoby, who is quite taken up with the girl whom he has in his mind have a charming effect upon thegirl, and she in return raises her sweet voice with songs of allurement. She assures him in an indirect way of her appreciation, alluding to his personal beauty.


When the parents of these young folk see their attachment to each other, they arrange to have them settled in marriage, and to follow the profession of a Village dhoby.

The washer men are a distinct class or caste. The son of a washer man is a washer man by compulsion. He cannot follow any other trade but the trade of his forefathers. (in the year 1897, not any more).


Source book: Indian Village Folk by T B Pandian, Year of publication 1897.




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