‘A type of residential building’ is the ideal way to describe the famous Chawl System in Mumbai. Now, the question that arises especially in the minds of those who do not belong to this city is, what is this unique housing system? And so, to answer this question here is presenting a few facts about this system that you need to know.

A Mumbai Chawl
A Chawl In Mumbai (Source: slate.com)

1. What Is The Chawl System?

‘A form of small housing units’ is what this system essentially comprises of. It is a form of residency that is mainly used by the lower middle class families in Mumbai. Furthermore, it was mainly in vogue from the early 1900’s  to about 1990’s, a period during which the textile business was at its peak. It were mainly the textile mill workers who resided in these chawls along with their large families. In fact, it was to provide the mill workers with a cost effective housing system that ‘chawls’ were created.

2. What Is The Exact Layout Of The Chawl System?

‘Apartment blocks’ is what every ‘Chawl’ appears in this unique system. The buildings under this system comprise of 4 to 5 storeys. Furthermore, each floor on this residential complex consists of 8 to 16 tenements. A single tenement in the local Marathi language is referred to as a ‘kohli’, which when translated means ‘a room’. It also includes a central staircase, which is connected to a long passage on each floor. In addition, each tenement is also provided with a ‘balcony’ i.e. an open space. It is these balconies that enabled people to freely interact with each other, a key feature of life in a chawl.

3. What Are The Sanitation Arrangements In The Chawl System?

In terms of sanitation,  families on each floor have to share a common toilet and bathroom among themselves. Each floor usually comprising of 4 to 5 toilets. Furthermore, chawls with private bathrooms are usually in high demand.However, they are very expensive, and cost about 50% more than a regular chawl.

4.  What Is The Typical Lifestyle In The Chawl System?

‘Devoid of Privacy’ is the best way to describe the lifestyle in this system. This is mainly because the ‘kohlis’ are so closely attached to each other. It is due to this close association that ‘gossiping’ is a favourite pastime of people living in a chawl. Additionally, this lack of space also helps families develop a bond of love and trust which usually lasts a ‘lifetime’. Life in a chawl also helps overcome divides such as communal, religion, class, financial etc. In other words, this system is the best example of  genuine ‘Unity In Diversity’, a concept on which the Indian society has been raised on.

5. What is the BDD Chawl System?

‘Bombay Development Department’ is the literal translation of BDD, a chawl type. Such chawls are mainly found in areas such as Lower Parel and Worli. It was established in 1920 so as to provide the growing migrant population in the city with homes and basic sanitation. Furthermore, the chawls under this BDD scheme were built on reclaimed lands.

6. The Chawl System And The Popular Culture Connection:

Just like the Nokia mobile which likes to connect people, this unique housing system too is connected to popular Mumbai culture via movies, TV series, and a book. So, be it ‘Bollywood’ or Marathi movies, films have been shot in chawls. A few examples are: Lalbaug Parel, Katha, Vaastav, Praan Jaye Par Shaan Na Jaye etc. In addition, a popular Zee TV series Pavitra Rishta also shows a character living in a chawl. A novel titled Q and A (which inspired the movie Slumdog Millionaire) written by Vikas Swarup mentions the life in a chawl.

With the ‘Chawl System” gradually having been destroyed post 1990 as ‘malls’ replaced ‘mills’, the city of Mumbai seems to have become a lot more colder and less vibrant than it was when it was called ‘BOMBAY’.

Image Credits: Wikipedia and Slate


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