Geopolitics

In Mumbai, Thousands Toil In The World's Largest Laundry

India's working poor include more than 5,000 men and women at one facility who wash and iron clothes by hand 14 hours a day, seven days a week, earning barely enough to survive.

Dhobi Ghat, in Mumbai
Dhobi Ghat, in Mumbai
Fabian von Poser

MUMBAI - There is laundry as far as the eye can see — shirts, trousers, handkerchiefs, sheets, pillow cases, underwear, uniforms. Everything that can possibly be worn and soiled. And it’s all being cleaned not with washing machines, but with hard human labor.

Clad in an undershirt and shorts, Surajbali Kanaugia stands in the pigeon-grey water of a two-by-two meter (6.5 x 6.5 feet) concrete wash tub. He beats a sheet against a stone, over and over, until it’s virtually water-free.

“On good days I can launder 100 items, a little less on bad days,” he says. “First I soften laundry in soapsuds and wash it with a brush. After that I beat items on the stone until all the dirt is rinsed away, then hang the piece up to dry.”

The 36-year-old has been working at this central outdoor laundry facility in Mumbai since he was 13 years old — nearly a quarter of a century. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. and works until 7 p.m.: 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Like most of the washermen at Dhobi Ghat (Hindi for “washing place”), Kanaugia comes from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. More than 5,000 men work here in the 826 washing tubs, laundering items for hotels, restaurants, hospitals and private households. Customers pay four cents to have a sheet washed, two cents for a pillow case.

Dhobi Ghat - Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Although there are electrical outlets at Dhobi Ghat, women iron laundry here with irons filled with hot coals. But there are a couple of electrical dryers. “We mainly use those during monsoon season between June and September,” says Kanaugia. “Otherwise nothing dries here.”

You would be hard pressed to find another place where the contrasts of modern India manifest as strikingly as in Mumbai. There is, on one hand, the almost shocking poverty. Millions of people looking for work stream into the city from all over India. Most of them end up as ragmen.

Then there are the vestiges of obscene wealth in a globalized world. On nearby Marine Drive, dozens of high-end high rises gleam like mirrors in the sunlight. A few kilometers beyond them is Bandra and its Bollywood high glitz.

Not far from Dhobi Ghat is Antilia, the biggest and most expensive single-family home on the planet. It belongs to Indian business magnate Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Limited, and it is said to have cost between $50 and $70 million.

Destiny determined at birth

Indian society is changing fast, and its heirarchies are becoming more porous. But the caste system still determines the choice of life partner and line of work for many millions of people.

Including Kanaugia. He belongs to the Dhobi, or washerman, caste. Like most of those who work at the laundry, he lives in a nearby shantytown, sharing his hut with 15 other people, sometimes more.

Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai - Photo: Alexanderpf

In the early morning hours, the washermen pray in a sparsely furnished temple near the laundering area. After a cup of tea and some dal (a purée of lentils and rice), they walk over to the ghat.

The wash tubs belong to the city and must be rented. “The rent is 300 rupees a month,” Kanaugia says, the equivalent of 4.20 euros or $5.60. “How much I earn depends on how many items I launder. Usually, I earn 10,000 rupees a month.” That’s 140 euros ($186).

In the mega-city of Mumbai, where rents are some of the fastest-climbing in the world, that’s a pittance. And the working conditions are tough: Like most of his colleagues, Kanaugia has neither a pension nor health insurance. That's despite suffering injuries and acid burns on his hands and feet from using chemical-laden products to clean the clothing and linens.

People at the ghat are modest about their prospects in life. Many have accepted the fact that there is no escape. “I have no education,” Kanaugia says. “That’s why I’ll probably be a washerman my whole life long. Like my father and grandfather.”

Yet he is grateful for what he has and says his circumstance could be a lot worse. “I at least have some money for food and a roof over my head. Many others in this city don’t have that.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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