Chawls of Bombay—An Introduction

in Overview
Published on: 02 November 2018

Aditi Dey

Aditi Dey is a qualitative researcher and ethnographer based out of Mumbai. She has a background in History, having done her MA from JNU and BA from St. Stephen's College, Delhi.


Chawls have been well represented in popular depictions of the city of Mumbai through movies, serials, plays and books. Most visibly present around the erstwhile textile mill regions of Parel and South Bombay, chawls have emerged as a housing typology across the entire city. Today they represent a slice of life in Mumbai, which it has drawn from heavily but has also moved on from in many ways. Perhaps associated most commonly with the burgeoning middle-class communities of the city and their communal living habits, chawls developed out of specific socio-economic dynamics at play.


But the history of chawls is closely tied to developments in the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the opening of textile mills, Mumbai witnessed a surge of migrants from the hinterland, who came to work in the mills and live in the city. Chawls were a response to the urgent need to house the migrant workers, as the city was unable to accommodate their rapidly growing population and housing needs. A distinct form of housing typology, it houses not just workers but their entire families and communities, playing an important role in shaping the kind of society that was born out of these neighbourhoods.


Chawls were typically two- to four-storeyed buildings that had 10x12 single occupancy rooms next to each other on a particular floor, with a shared toilet on each floor and two exits on either sides. Most chawls had an inner courtyard along which the floors were designed. Each floor was divided between a string of rooms and a wide gallery-like balcony. The ‘chawl’ typology had basic common characteristics, but varied in design in some ways, such as a few of them were much smaller and included only two storeys and resembled more the larger forms of bungalows, these were called baithi chawls. Depending on the nature of the employment of the residents, location and the community that lived in the chawl, the design varied. The chawls of working-class areas of Parel and Byculla and the BDD-BIT chawls of Worli were often commented on for their resemblance to prisons and had many aspects in common. They were cramped spaces for a large number of people who lived in chawls, sometimes up to 16 men in one room, and would have regular issues with the provision of basic infrastructure. After chawls were built rapidly across these neighbourhoods, they were separated by narrow and filthy gulleys, often prime places for squalor and disease.


Historical trajectory of chawls


Chawl neighbourhoods were first to emerge in the ‘native’ part of the colonial city, in close quarters with the white town, when the urban economy was undergoing rapid transformation. The white part of the colonial town was significantly larger than the native part, although housing only a marginal colonial population—this dynamic defined the subsequent development of the city. Migrant workers hailing from the Konkan coast and the Deccan region moved to the city for the first time to work in docks, warehouses, railway workshops, trading businesses and the textile mills. In a matter of very little time the workers spilled out of the native town towards the marshy reclaimed lands. Eventually when the textile mills multiplied in the latter part of 19th century in Parel and Byculla, the city saw an unprecedented rise in the migrant population. The migrant workers started living in thatched huts, tin sheds, barracks and a growing number of chawls. A combination of efforts from the colonial authority, who feared consequences of deteriorating public health and private traders/businessmen interested in participating in the mill economy, led to the creation of chawls.


Before chawls were set up in the regions of Girangaon and Girgaon, many plots of lands were owned by different kinds of groups, such as large families or particular communities, who were living in one- or two-stroreyed bungalows called wadas and were surrounded by vegetable or fruit orchards. With the boom in the textile mill economy, many of these families turned from trading to participating in mills, a lucrative alliance with the colonial government, or sold their plots to other communities such as the Jains and Baniyas. This explains why many of the chawls derive their names from either particular communities or the kind of fruit or vegetables that were grown on the plot.


The growth in the textile economy propelled a need for housing the growing number of migrant workers, who began sleeping on streets and at the gates of the factories. While mill owners responded to this situation by creating private chawls on plots or, provisioning for a part of worker’s wages towards housing expenditure, the colonial government invested in the situation as well. The iconic BIT and BDD chawls were a result of their involvement. Few developments in the larger socio-political milieu led to the plague of 1898 and the first workers’ riots in 1918. The plague set off a wave of panic for the colonial state around public health and sanitation of the city, lack of which would lead to further squalor and disease. There was a strong association made between what was perceived as ‘Indian’ practices and the lack of sanitation in the city. Such an impression and a growing sense of panic among the colonial authorities led to the establishment of the Bombay Improvement Trust, the first city improvement institution to be established in an Indian city. While BIT began the efforts of ameliorating public health by urban planning, widening of roads, carrying out a series of invasive interventions and building chawls, it was just not enough to absorb the expanding population of mill workers.


This period happened to coincide with the period when India became one of the prime destinations for cotton production, aided by an endless supply of raw cotton from the hinterland. To meet with the growing need to house the workers and the problems arising from the first food riots that broke out in 1918, the government formed another housing authority, the Bombay Development Department. The BIT and BDD chawls were built in the areas of Worli and Parel, with a focus on coming up with the most affordable solution to housing. Thus, the cheapest materials and technology were deployed to create more one-room tenements. Facilities such as water, sewage and electricity were not accounted for and only retrospectively provided for, leading to a long-lasting trend of poor basic facilities in these chawls, and residents mobilising to demand their rights.


Chawls became a crucial link in the continual flow of rural to urban migration, with migrant workers moving into a particular chawl where they could claim a place to stay either through a relative or a member of the same village—they became a link between the workers’ roots and their future while they were able to establish their own set up. The landlord of the chawl varied from the owner of the mill to the jobber, who got the workers from the villages to the colonial government as the landlord after the BDD and BIT chawls were built.


Community life in chawls


Chawls of Bombay were mainly located in Girgaon and Girangaon, with a clear caste and class distinction between each region and among particular chawls as well. Girgaon is derived from the words ‘giri’, which means hill, and ‘gaon’, which means village, and hence a ‘village at the foot of the hills’. It was the neighbourhood towards the south of Bombay where the middle-class chawls were located. Girangaon, on the other hand, came from the word ‘giran’, which means mill, and thus ‘Girangaon’ meant ‘village of the mills’. While the chawl as a housing typology was the one common element between these two neighbourhoods, the social fabric was different. Girgaon was the neighbourhood where the white-collar aspirants and class mobile communities resided. They belonged to the group of migrants in the city who had moved in order to pursue high education or white-collar jobs that were emerging out of the newly developed economy, ranging from peons and clerks to professors and doctors. A large portion of the Marathi Hindu communities of upper and upper-middle castes resided in localities in Girgaon. Chawls here were similar in design to those in Girgangaon, with the one-room tenements and large balconies and shared inner courtyards, but the life that unfolded within was markedly different. It was a stage for many social reform movements and associational activities, especially during the Independence movement and language riots. Different identities were forged in these neighbourhoods through shared spaces and collective participation, but there was a desire to have a better defined private sphere, ultimately aimed at social mobility.


In that sense the chawls of Girgaon led to social formations and new cultural ties among its residents, because of the many ways in which people were tied to where they lived. The chawls were located very close to the mills and became a ground for workers to mobilise themselves for issues of pertinence. Moreover, the division between what was ‘public’, ‘semi-public’ and ‘private’ became more blurred and every space had degrees of ‘public-ness’. Aside from political mobilisation, chawls served other purposes as well. It was in a particular room in most chawls where the gaonkari mandals, or the committee that represents a particularly dominant ancestral village, would be stationed on rent. A room known as the gala, served the village community back in the hinterland; aspirant workers who had just moved to the city to work in the mills could set up shop in these rooms and live in different shifts. The jobber would bring groups of men from his community and put them up in galas. Another practice that emerged out of chawls that served the community was the khanavals, an institution run by women wherein food and tiffin services were provided to all the workers in the chawls who were without a family. Utilities such as the toilets were shared and so were the large balconies and staircases, which were used for several storage purposes. The famous courtyards acted as a space for several collective activities and events of social significance to pan out. Various cultural forms such as yakshaganas, dashavatars and tamashas among many others, specific to several communities, were performed in the courtyards alongside other day-to-day forms of mobilisations. Moreover, the chawls were multipurpose housing typologies, wherein the rooms lining the inner side of the courtyard were one-room houses whereas in many cases the rooms on the outer side were also used for small shops run by members of the chawls.


Chawls were also closely associated with the emergence of many religious and cultural festivals unique to Bombay’s urban identity. Introduced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the celebration of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival as an annual ten-day affair that was meant to unite Hindus across caste and class lines was introduced on a massive scale in the chawls in the early 20th century. It was on festivals such as Diwali, Holi, Ganpati festival that the many inherited cultural and folk forms were showcased, which represented the distinctly different spirit and face of the celebrations.


Women in chawls


An important facet of the era of the textile mills was the fact that in the initial phase many women used to work in the mills as well. Having left their families or being recently widowed, women worked in the mills and also participated in many political mobilisations; the fact that the chawl was located close to the mills aided women’s employment. Although this changed over time with new laws, and mills became primarily for single migrant male workers, the strong presence of women manifested itself in other ways, especially in the context of chawls.


One of the most defining features of the chawls was the sheer lack of privacy and the limited space, more so within an individual room; by virtue of its design, it seemed like a place meant for men and not women. It was a shared disadvantage that women had to encounter when they were first brought to the chawls after the men had found some stability in their job and a place to live. But eventually the shared disadvantage of having to make a family life in the chawls and create some privacy led to new ways in which women inhabited and used the chawls. The inner courtyards became spaces where daily rituals and practices were carried out, such as sieving spices, washing clothes and so on, in the company of other women. The regularity and rhythms of these chores led to solidarity and ties of dependency among women. The ties of dependency were also reproduced in other dynamics, especially that of the khanaval. It was an enterprise in each chawl that was run only by the women, providing lunch and dinner services for single men who lived in the chawls. Khanavals became the spaces within chawls were women were considered reliable and essential; these women cooked food for migrants in the native way since they were able to distinguish between the tastes of a migrant from the Ghats and one from the Konkan coast. The khanaval became a space where more ties were forged, with exchanges of information between men and women, and it strengthened chawl community. Apart from the khanavals, women also took up other smaller ventures in order to supplement the family income such as selling pickles or masalas or stitching garments or other cloth items. The economy of the chawl allowed for women to be active and enterprising residents.


While it seemed that the chawl became the sphere of women and the mill gates and streets were the sphere of men, the women of the chawl were active participants at important political moments. Women came in large numbers for cultural and political movements for rights and other workers’ struggles. Life in chawls provided women with the agency to be active members.


Marginalised communities in chawls


While many communities such as the Marathis, Gujaratis and groups from the Deccan and Konkan region are said to have established their identities in chawls, equally significant were the many marginalised communities, such as the Dalits, that resided in these chawls. Caste was a crucial undertone that marked and distinguished one chawl from the other. While life within chawls was not bereft of conflict and everyday spats, conflicts also manifested between chawls as well. Practices of distancing and ‘othering’ happened between communities residing in chawls, operating on the dynamics born out of the caste system and a strong desire within communities for social mobility.


Chawls were an important location for a large number of Dalit communities that moved away from the oppressive rural contexts to the city in search of jobs and respect. While practices of segregation and often untouchability were retained, Dalit communities were presented with an opportunity to forge their own community in the new urban milieu. What aided this social formation was that many chawls, especially the BDD Chawls in Worli, built by the colonial state, were where the ostracised Dalit groups were housed along with large communities of Muslims. In accounts of writers such as the famous Dalit poet Namdev Dhasal, one is able to gain a glimpse at how life in chawls cemented their sense of identity in shared struggles and anecdotes.


Chawls became the space for the birth of many cultural and political movements for marginalised communities, especially the Dalits. Ambedkar was a hugely influential figure in the Dalit chawls, mobilising them through union activities to demand for better rights at factories and fight oppression from the upper-caste communities that neglected them. It was in the chawls of Worli that the Dalit Panthers Movement was also born. The formation of Dalit identity was not just limited to the context of militant activities during workers’ struggles but also in creation of social groups such as the sect of neo-Buddhists. Neo-Buddhists were a product of the mass conversions to Buddhism that Dalits took up when Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Several neo-Buddhist communities still reside in the chawls of Byculla and Worli, wherein their distinct social practices and identity were born. Ambedkar’s tenets informed the everyday lives of neo-Buddhists/Ambedkarites, but through collective cultural activities and social institutions of the chawls, the community was able to cement a strong sense of community and self esteem. This can be seen in the use of various communal spaces wherein activities catering to different groups, crèches for children, women’s committees, religious practices and political events pan out.




Chawls played several important functions in facilitating the growth of the city. It had become the enabler for migrant workers to build a productive engagement with their livelihood and residence and deepen their relationship with the city. In housing diverse communities and peoples, in close proximity to lucrative and politically significant hubs of the city, chawls allowed its residents to have agency in the city. This manifested not just in the expansion of their communities but also in moments of collectiveness when people were able to mobilise themselves to bargain for shared interests and rights.


The trajectory of growth that Mumbai followed continues to be a pattern in most growing megacities all over the world, of rural migrants shifting to cities in search of livelihoods. In that context the historical example of the role played by chawls in supporting these migrations is a lesson to be drawn from, especially in times when cities are slowly becoming incapable of absorbing more and pushing its poorer migrants to peripheries of the city and to extreme poverty.


While years of neglect and decay have now made the chawls unsustainable for its residents to live in, by many measures, their ‘unlivable’ state is steadily used as a reason for complete demolition rather than any scope of repair. Such a move is supported in a need to derive more value from land, especially the lands on which the chawls are located. Most of the chawls have already disappeared to pave way for the government or real estate actors to build high-rise apartments, in exchange for paying the residents hefty sums and relocating them to other parts of the city. While many have resisted, and many others have given in to the promise of better living conditions and social mobility, such a trend only seems to be growing.


It remains to be seen whether the new buildings that come up in place of chawls, or the new spaces occupied by erstwhile chawls residents are able to replicate the role that women played in chawls, or the way in which shared resources created and strengthened a community’s identity or how residential spaces were conducive for activities beyond just living, but also created several opportunities in its mixed use form. But if not, one is left to wonder whether there was no value in life in the chawls apart from its dilapidated structure and nostalgia for older times.