India’s urban landscape has been transformed over the past two decades, but despite the onslaught of modern industry and mechanized services, some traditional skills have managed to endure. As explorers and backpackers set out across the country, they may expect to be greeted by sights and scenes as alien and exotic to us urbanites, as ancient India must have been to travelers from distant parts of the world. Often associated with snake charmers and elephant rides, India has a lot more to offer and, if you look hard enough, you will find a number of seemingly odd – and astonishingly useful – professions and services on offer around every corner.
1. Mattress Fluffers
The mention of mattress fluffers among India’s urban youth may conjure images of decadent pillow fights or worse, but to the more seasoned inhabitants of our cities, it will bring back feelings of nostalgia. Mattress fluffers offer a valuable service – fluffing and beating mattresses, refilling, and reupholstering them to keep them comfortable, still in a world before spring beds and memory foam mattresses. They make their presence known with the distinctive twang of stringed instruments that they carry with them.
Where to find them: A rare site in city centers, you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of them in the outskirts and in small towns and villages.
Dabbawalas are as much a part of Mumbai’s cultural heritage and legacy as are its great historic monuments. They provide an invaluable service to Mumbai’s population, ferrying food in tiffin boxes (dabbas) from the homes of customers across the city to their offices, ensuring that the city’s working populace receives fresh, home-cooked lunch every day. You can call them the backbone of the economy, because everyone knows how cranky and unproductive a hungry Mumbaikar can be.
Where to find them: Loiter around at lunch time, in any of Mumbai’s busy commercial areas and they will unfailingly show up at lunch time.
3. Handloom Weavers
India was once renowned for the skills of its weavers, who were integral to the country’s independence movement. Sadly, our global economy relies on cheap, machine-made cloth, thus diminishing the significance of this profession. Despite this onslaught of globalization, weavers thrive in many parts of the country and there is a growing demand for handcrafted textiles and fabrics, especially among tourists.
Where to find them: Handloom weavers in cities like Jodhpur and Varanasi have a rich legacy and are still thriving, but you will find traditional weavers scattered in smaller towns and villages as well.
4. Roadside Booksellers
In most of India’s metros, especially in Mumbai, it isn’t uncommon for hawkers to lay claim to pedestrian walkways to sell their wares. Few of these hawkers are more loved and popular than those selling books. In certain areas, some of these roadside booksellers are extremely knowledgeable about the books they sell and will even be able to recommend good reads.Almost all of them sell second-hand books exclusively, and very often, you will be lucky enough to find a rare book or a first-edition of a book
Where to find them: Almost all of the big cities in the country.
Once a common site in all of India’s cities, they’re a little less common today, but still very much around. These flute-sellers are like skilled travelling salesmen, who move about the city, selling their flutes and sometimes even entertaining passersby with their melodies. The flutes that they make and sell are usually made out of a bamboo shaft and are traditionally called bansuris.
Where to find them: Most cities and towns; they are an especially common sight at festivities, fairs, and carnivals.
6. Train Masseurs
If you’re picturing electric foot massagers and massage chairs, you obviously haven’t been to Mumbai or on any of its public transport services. The seats on these local trains are uncushioned and at peak hours you will be hard-pressed to even find enough space to stand, but in all of this chaos you will find masseurs offering their services.! For the adventurous or the utterly exhausted, a head or shoulder massage in a Mumbai local train or any public transport will be a bizarre experience, but one to remember.
Where to find them: Mumbai’s famous local trains, at almost any time of the day.
7. Ear Cleaners
When you’re passing down a busy road in one of India’s cities, you may be greeted by a strange sight, although there is little that seems out of the ordinary to most Indians. The sight in question here refers to ear cleaners. Yes, that’s right; ear cleaning is a skill in India, so don’t be surprised if you spot someone peering into another person’s ear, very intently, while shoving what would appear to be sharp objects, inside. Those foolhardy or brave enough may give it a try, while for the rest of us, it’s simply a sight to behold.
Where to find them: Most parts of Delhi, Mumbai, and other metros, especially in the older parts of the cities.
Long before the world had laundromats and dry cleaning services, India boasted laundry services for the masses in the form of dhobis and dhobi ghats – a place where dhobis congregate to wash clothes. Washer men, better known locally as dhobis, have been providing the cities’ inhabitants with top-notch service for decades. Despite the advent of household washing machines, many are still thriving. With the world’s burgeoning energy problems and the climate change crisis, dhobis probably offer the most eco-friendly and energy-efficient solution to cleaning dirty laundry.
Where to find them: Big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore. Tourists might enjoy a trip to the landmark dhobi ghats, which are locales where dhobis congregate to wash clothes.
9. Knife Grinders
A few decades ago, knife grinder-wielding cyclists were not an uncommon site across the country. You would find them in markets and outside residential areas, and they’d always be surrounded by a flock of housewives eagerly awaiting for their knives to be sharpened. Knife grinders sharpen knives, making sure you can keep reusing them instead of having to buy new ones frequently. Although their business might not be booming, knife-grinders still offer a valuable service and cater to those who value utility and prefer not to dispose of, or replace their knives.
Where to find them: These days knife-grinders are hard to find, but you should still find them in some markets in the big cities, and more easily in small towns across the country.
10. Bucket Repairers
Back in the 80s and 90s, before the local markets were flooded with affordable plastic products, plastic buckets were highly prized and bucket repairers offered a valuable service. They would plug leaks, fix cracks, and keep those buckets going strong. With the rise of consumerism, plastic buckets have become disposable and so have the bucket repairers. With rising plastic waste and the need to recycle, maybe it’s time to bring back the bucket repairers!
Where to find them: A true relic from the more recent past, you may catch a glimpse of them in rural areas, villages, and small towns.
As you journey through India, you are more than likely to come across a variety of these practical yet strange services and professions, many of which are dying or slowly fading away. They offer what might be the last glimpses into a bygone era.