Typically found in intensively industrialised cities of India, a chawl is a large residential block of building divided into separate small tenements providing inexpensive accommodations to less affluent people like the migrant labour force, etc. It is also a housing typology associated with the city’s underprivileged communities, which is well suited to their community lifestyle. Chawls evolved in history due to certain socio-economic factors, for ease of logistics, and were a crucial solution to accommodate migrant workers and their families when the cities were undergoing rapid urbanization.
Usually having two to four stories, a chawl consists of no less than forty units, eight to sixteen per floor. A room with 100 to 200 square feet area, also known as ‘Kholi’ – has a hall and kitchen, with rents ranging from ₹ 50 to ₹ 200 per month. The building has a central courtyard serving as a meeting or assembly space for all the residents. Vertical circulation is via a centrally located staircase leading to corridors or passageways running along the length of each level. Residents living on every floor share common latrines. Chawls were a convenient solution, though they had several downside issues.
Evolution of Chawls in history
Rooted in the colonial era, the city of Mumbai (previously known as Bombay) was then a trade centre of the East India Company. The first type of Chawl was initially constructed in the early 18th century to provide accommodation for industrial workers who had migrated from far and near places of Bombay in search of better opportunities to make their living. Back then in colonial times, the land was not equally divided among the citizens. The affluent class of society, like officials, merchants, and others, lived in large residential bungalows and owned acres of land, leaving little to no space for the working class. In response to this common issue, highly congested Chawls were built in the city. Downside issues like sanitation, safety etc., are crucial to date.
In the 1900s, chawls rose into popularity at a time when traders were setting up textile mills in Bombay on encouragement from the British government. Labourers & other workers had migrated from far & wide, predominantly from Deccan & Konkan regions, to secure a job in these mills. Viewing this scenario as highly profitable in gaining a passive income, landlords constructed chawls and rented them to the migrant workers and their families.
Before chawls were built in the Girgaon and Girangaon regions of Bombay, which housed most cotton and other textile factories, various types of communities owned acres of land, including joint families who lived in bungalows called ‘Wadas’ surrounded by orchards. When the economy soared due to the upcoming textile mills, many families switched their means of living to mill business; while being allied to the British Government at the time and sold their land to Jains and other communities. Hence, many chawls derive their names from communities or fruits and vegetables grown in their orchards.
British Colonial Government promoted the construction of chawls for the benefit of migrant workers using inexpensive materials and construction techniques. This effort of large industrialists, mill owners and colonial government collaborating in providing affordable housing to migrant workers was a boon to society at that time.
The chaotic architecture of Chawls
A few well-known examples of the spatial configuration of chawls are as follows:
– Baithi Chawl: Also known as the sitting chawl, these are one-story buildings with housing units laid out in multiple rows. The front spaces are utilized for community and domestic activities, whereas the back areas are solely for services. With restricted space in interiors already occupied by multi-purpose and kitchen areas, the chawl rises taller to create double-height lofts that function as storage places, especially during festive seasons.
– Bar Chawl: Multi-storied chawls mostly found in Mumbai with two corridors at the front and rear of each unit, typically built in any land configuration. The main entrances, located in passageways, face the street. The shared access accelerates community spirit, even more so when interactions with users of neighboring streets are enhanced adding to the cultural community urban life of residents.
– Courtyard Chawl: The main feature of these typologies of chawls are open-to-sky shared courtyards, which are actively used regularly every evening and especially during annual festivals. While easing cramped space inside the tight interiors, courtyards and interconnecting passageways facilitate connections between families; while serving as the heart of chawl.
Cultural significance of Chawls
The social fabric of Chawls
Chawls; having identical spatial planning had different social fabrics depending on their locations. For example, ‘Girangaon’ & ‘Girgaon’ localities in Mumbai. ‘Girangaon’: an area with chawls having one-room units, courtyards & large balconies are where many movements for social causes had taken place during the Indian Independence movement. Whereas; ‘Girgaon’ housed migrants pursuing higher education and emerging white-collar professions. Cultural identities were formed, in these neighborhoods through community spatial arrangement and participation. The concept of ‘Gaonkari Mandals’ representing dominant ancestral village and renting out ‘Galas’– rooms housing aspiring workers from different communities arose in the chawl system.
Chawls for Women
The concept of ‘Khanavals’: tiffin services provided for all workers living away from their families; is run by women to provide for themselves or another source of income. The spacious passageways and balcony areas functioned as storage units, with courtyards creating space for community activities such as sieving of spices and preparing other ingredients, washing, and so on. However, women facing repercussions due to unfortunate situations worked tirelessly in the mills. While; this changed over the years, with predominantly migrant male workers working in the mills presently, women in chawls established their presence in several ways in creating means of supplementing their income through various ventures such as making pickles, Spices, stitching clothing items, etc. which is challenging in that context. The Khanavals fostered a strong community spirit within its residents irrespective of their gender or work.
Despite experiencing various challenges in terms of lifestyle improvement, a heartening characteristic of chawls is that, despite religious, ethnic, and cultural disparities, people always maintain positive connections with each other on both micro (immediate neighbors) and macro levels (whole community). As observed over the years, people living in chawls are much less likely to have communal disputes of any kind. Festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi, Holi, Diwali, Dahi Handi, etc are always celebrated together as one community. The environmental backbone of every chawl is Humanity, Honesty, and Working hard, and it is admirable how they find a silver lining to lighten up their days despite financial difficulties through fostering human relationships.
Chawl (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chawl (Accessed: February 11, 2023).
One, S., Architecture & More by square one, Architecture more by Square One. Available at: http://squareone.blog/the-chawl-culture/ (Accessed: February 11, 2023).
Pednekar, D.Life in the CHAWLS of Mumbai (Bombay): Describe the life in Chawls of Bombay, DipeshPednekar.com. Available at: https://www.dipeshpednekar.com/blog/life-in-the-chawls-of-mumbai (Accessed: February 11, 2023).
Chawls of bombay-an introduction (no date) Sahapedia. Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/chawls-of-bombay%E2%80%94-introduction (Accessed: February 11, 2023).
The Chawl and Circulatory Urbanism (no date) Sahapedia. Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/the-chawl-and-circulatory-urbanism (Accessed: February 11, 2023).
Physical and social configurations of the Bombay chawls (no date) Sahapedia. Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/physical-and-social-configurations-of-the-bombay-chawls (Accessed: February 12, 2023).
Image 1: Unknown (no date) Mumbai Chawls. Available at: https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/29195 (Accessed: February 12, 2023).
Image 2: Chawl typologies (2019) BARD Studio. Available at: https://bardstudio.in/chawl-typologies/ (Accessed: February 12, 2023).
Image 3: Rupali (no date) Mumbai Chawls. Available at: http://aprovisionalpractice.blogspot.com/2011/06/mumbai-chawls.html (Accessed: February 12, 2023).