On our last day in Mumbai, we were debating going to Dharavi – one of the biggest slums in Asia made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire (which, by the way, had an excellent soundtrack). Asking around, some people said it was too risky while others shrugged and said there was nothing to see.
Opting out of the many walking tours that were offered, we decided to go on our own. We took the train from the Chhatrapati Shivaji (Mumbai Central) Station arriving at the Dadar station in Dharavi just a short while later (it took about 15 minutes).
Across the street from the train station, a few families earn their living by making baskets of varying shapes and sizes. A little known fact is that Dharavi is actually a thriving community employing thousands of residents in different industries such as textiles, leather and pottery.
Most of these products are handmade in small households or workshops but that doesn’t stop them from exporting all over the world with a turnover of nearly $650M (yes that’s million) each year. Of course, the craftsmen/women only earn a very dismal amount from these profits; wages are ridiculously low and working conditions can be gruesomely challenging.
Here’s a website where you can contribute to the local economy by buying some of the products made in Dharavi: www.dharavimarket.com
Because Dharavi is considered a slum, I (foolishly) expected to see a less developed scene but with such an extensive variety of shops and so much activity, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. To be honest, I really didn’t see much difference with this part of Dharavi (we only saw but a small inkling of this huge slum) than in any other given city in India. Crumbling buildings (with the ever-present blue tarps) and houses begging for a make-over are, unfortunately, a common sight in this country.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Dharavi was to meet the local craftsmen (mentioned above) but when we got there we realized all the shops were closed on Sunday. Our lack of planning was in
our my favor, though, because vendors were setting up their goods on the streets for Sunday market – and how I love street markets! Women were busy shopping in clusters vehemently haggling a price for their carefully chosen items which, in turn, made for a very lively atmosphere. This beautiful girl (who spoke perfect English) helped me choose some lovely embroidered trimmings – she even bargained a great price for me (hence the ridiculous smile on my face).
For whatever reason, walking tours will warn against taking pictures but nobody seemed to mind our cameras – and of course children always enjoy having their picture taken. While I was busy going through piles of trimmings, my boyfriend was entertaining the local kids and playing tag running in and out of houses. I was completely oblivious to all this until he told me – trimmings will do that to a textile addict like me!
Sadly, Dharavi has a reputation for being dangerous and sketchy but we discovered quite the opposite. I don’t suggest walking there alone at night but during the day it was fine. The people – men and women alike – were some of the friendliest and most welcoming we met in India greeting us with warm smiles and friendly hellos. Most just went about their day not even giving us a second glance (which was a welcome respite from the usual curious stares we got).
I wasn’t sure what to expect going to Dharavi but the time we spent there turned out to be a truly authentic experience – no tourist traps, no entrance fee, no endless line to get in and no hassling from touts. We would’ve gladly spent more time there but we had a bus to catch out of Mumbai. We both agreed it was without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip to India – mostly thanks to the wonderful people of Dharavi!
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