The Slums of Dharavi: A Highlight of my Trip to India

with 22 Comments

 

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).

 

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You can always be sure to find color anywhere in India!

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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

 

 

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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.

 

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Amazing what a little paint and color will do to an otherwise nondescript building

 

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).

 

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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!

 

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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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Have you been to Dharavi? Share your thoughts and comments below!

 

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  • Karla Ramos

    I have yet to visit India but I’ve already heard so much great (and not so great) stuff about it from friends. And thank you for sharing this lovely insight about Dharavi, I’m happy to know that the export from handcrafts is high but how I wish the government can also regulate giving more to the workers, rather than the business owners. Will defnitely include this on my itinerary when I come around!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Karla! India is a spectrum of so many adjectives but that’s what makes it so appealing. I agree, workers should profit more from those billions of dollars. It’s very sad that they’re not rightfully recognized for their work.

  • Punita Malhotra

    Your post just proves that there is so much to be learnt from every travel experience. Some travels are glossy and others are rough, but each one changes us in a different way. The key is to focus on learning something new.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That’s so well-put and I couldn’t agree more! 🙂

  • megan_claire

    Wow what an incredible experience. It disgusts me that these beautiful people supply so much trade throughout the world yet are forced to live in slums because corporations profit and pay them pittance in return. I’m so glad to hear that Dharavi was actually a very friendly and welcoming place despite the reputation and perhaps the connotation that comes from the word “slum”.

    And I agree … Slumdog Millionaire had an excellent soundtrack! 😀

  • Chrysoula Manika

    What a great experince. It doesn’t seem sacry or dangerous for me as well judging from the photos. I only see smiling people. I can totally understand why it was the highlight of your trip.

  • I wanted to go here during my visit to India also but I didn’t get a chance to. I’m glad you went on your own and not with a company, as my local friends said this is controversial. I did get a chance to tour the slums of Kenya during my visits there. It’s really heart breaking and eye opening.

  • Kathy James

    I took a tour of the Dharavi with a company a few years ago. It was really interesting and we got to go in many different factories and recycling areas. I would definitely recommend going too.

  • Kavita

    What an incredible experience, and looks like your welcome was really warm and wonderful with no hint of danger or resentment from those you met. How refreshing to read about it. Did you take a photo of your purchases?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      No I didn’t take a photo of the trimmings that I bought but I still have them. 🙂

  • Kallsy Page

    Lately I keep finding these wonderful articles on places in India and I can’t stop dreaming about visiting! I’m now adding Dharavi to my itinerary. I, like you, would be rather obsessed with all of the textiles. How on earth could one select only a few? I would probably need an additional suitcase! 😉 I appreciate you noting that the area felt warm and welcoming even though some would regard it as unsafe. Like visiting any place it’s good to be cautious. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Lucky you – I miss India! Let me know if you have any questions. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I was ecstatic when I saw all the wares spread out on the ground…lol! It’s important to state that Dharavi is a huge slum and we only saw a fragment of it. Slumdog Millionaire showed some of the truths of Dharavi but, of course, there are so many other layers. We were very fortunate to have had this experience and the people of Dharavi were wonderful.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Sasha! I also miss India – it just has a way of getting under your skin doesn’t it?

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Natalie! So happy you enjoyed this post. I think when visiting such places, it’s important to keep in mind that people live there, this is their home and we shouldn’t be treating it like a “tourist site”. We went just so we could meet some people and get a bit of insight into everyday life in the slums and that’s exactly what happened. As for textiles, India is a dream (I came back with a few)!

  • Clíodhna Ryan

    I love supporting local craftspeople. I also love textiles so this sounds really interesting. With regards to not taking photographs, I think as long as you ask people’s permission and are careful with your possessions there shouldnt be a problem. I have seen people on tours snapping pictures of children without getting their parents permission which, as a teacher, doesn’t sit right with me. You got some beautiful photos and had a wonderful experience by the looks of it so well done for stepping off the beaten path.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I despise when travelers stick their cameras in people’s faces (especially children)! Nothing wrong with taking a picture of a crowd but asking permission for an individual picture is the right thing to do. And Dharavi was wonderful – I wish we could’ve spent more time there.

  • Ivy

    I loved Slumdog Millionaire! Such a good movie. I would be a little sketched out traveling to places that have an unsafe reputation but I’m glad you guys enjoyed your time there! The people there seem super friendly. First Tibet, now Dharavi- you go to the coolest places, Lydia! 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Ivy! Dharavi was definitely an eye-opener. I was moved by everyone’s genuine kindness and warm smiles. It was a very memorable experience. By the way, I didn’t go to Tibet (I wish!), I went to McLeod-Ganj which is in Northern India. 😉

  • Ty Janee

    I always notice that places I don’t expect to be all that great, are the ones that take my breath away. I love that you decided to be every ounce of authentic on your trip and connected with the locals on a personal level by helping them to provide for their families. I will definite add this to my list of things to do!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Ty! Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s true that we’re often surprised by unexpected places which is one of the great things about traveling. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Suz! My boyfriend and I don’t like tours of any kind. We both find it takes away from having a genuine experience and limits our freedom and flexibility so we decided to go on our own. I felt totally safe going alone with him. 🙂

    P.S. Get to India now!! 😉 It’s an amazing, fascinating and crazy country.