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Who are they?
Traditionally, the Dhobi are washer men. The name dhobi is derived from the Hindi dhona (to wash). The Dhobi were considered ‘untouchables’ – the lowest castes in the Hindu social hierarchy. India’s independence brought about a new constitution that lifted this age-old stigma of impurity. The new designation provides the Dhobi people with a host of benefits and quotas in various government schemes and jobs.
They are a large community, widely distributed across northern, central, western and eastern India.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Most Dhobi follow their traditional occupation of washing and ironing clothes. Some of the better-off Dhobi own dry-cleaning shops. It is common to find the local Dhobi at a convenient distance in every neighborhood. In villages they tend to occupy specified quarters from where they offer their laundering services.
In addition to working as launderers, some are engaged in cultivation and other subsidiary occupations like animal husbandry, business and skilled and unskilled labour. In the heavily forested state of Assam the subsidiary occupations include carpentry and sawing of timber. In recent years, many have joined government service at various levels helped by the official affirmative action policies.
Literacy levels among the Dhobi are low and child labour exists among them. In economically less advanced states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the literacy rate is only 20% due to poverty and social restrictions. In the more prosperous states of Haryana and Punjab, the Dhobi are receptive to family planning methods.
Unlike most Hindus of India, the Dhobi do not tend to be vegetarian. However, some Muslim Dhobi, as those in Chandigarh do not eat beef, even though there is no religious prohibition against it. In addition to meat, their staple food includes wheat, rice, maize, lentils, vegetables and fruit. Alcohol is consumed by the men.
Women have a low status in the community and have no right over ancestral property, while male children are given equal rights. However, in the union territory of Daman and Diu, which was formerly a Portuguese colony, the Dhobi follow Portuguese law in matters related to inheritance. Under this law, half the property of the deceased goes to his widow, while the other half is equally distributed amongst his sons. Women take active part in the traditional occupation of washing and ironing of clothes but are subservient to their men in all family matters. Their role in society is minimal at best.
Endogamy (marriage within a specific group as required by custom or law) is usually the norm at community or group level. But, in certain states, marriages now routinely take place between groups that were once barred from each other.
Previously, child marriage was acceptable but now the age for marriage has increased gradually. Girls usually marry between the ages of fourteen to twenty years and boys commonly marry at sixteen to twenty five years. Marriages are arranged by family. Monogamy is the norm but a man can have a second wife if his first wife is barren. The Dhobi still observe the custom of paying a bridal dowry; this is usually in cash or in goods – a bartered settlement between families using whatever is considered as appropriate value in animals or other items of trade.
Divorce is traditionally allowed except in some Indian states. Widows are permitted to remarry and it is also acceptable for a widow to marry the younger brother of her deceased husband (or for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s younger sister).
What Are Their Beliefs?
While the majority of the Dhobi are Hindu, there are Muslim Dhobi too. The Muslim Dhobi people follow the tenets of Islam in that they practice circumcision for boys, bury their dead, and venerate the shrines of Muslim saints.
The Dhobi in Punjab and Haryana worship Hindu gods like Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Shiva. Those of Rajasthan have the ‘landing place’ of Lord Siva (or pond where they wash clothes) as their principal deity. In Orissa the Dhobi worship family gods. They celebrate all Hindu festivals as Holi (festival of colours) and Diwali (festival of lights) but they are segregated from taking part in various aspects of the festival of colours with the higher caste Brahmin and Rajput.
The Dhobi believe in spirits and witchcraft. They utilise the services of religious mendicants (beggars) who practice magic. These generally belong to their community. The dead are cremated and the ashes are scattered in rivers. A Brahmin (highest Hindu caste) priest performs their marriage ceremonies and other life-cycle rituals.
What Are Their Needs?
The stigma of the untouchables remains in spite of the new laws of the land. They need formal education and basic amenities like clean drinking water and medical assistance, especially in remote rural areas.