Dabbawallas and Tiffin Tins

Among the effluvia engendered by Britain’s Prince Charles’ marriage in 2005 to Camilla Parker-Bowles was this tidbit, from the BBC:

Two of the famous lunch-box, or tiffin, carriers from the Indian city of Mumbai are on their way to London to attend Prince Charles’ wedding on Saturday.

The honored men belong to a group, virtually all male, which delivers 175,000 home-cooked lunches, daily, to suburban workers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India.

Image of a Lunch in a Tiffin TinOperating much like a postal system, the men, called ‘dabbawallas’ or ‘tiffinwallas’, collect lunches (‘tiffin’) from the homes where they’re cooked, transporting them on foot or by bicycle or by handcart and by train until they are delivered to individual offices.

Image of a Bicycle Loaded with Tiffin TinsThe entire operation takes a whole day. Tins are collected at 9 AM, put on the trains by 10:30 and delivered to offices at 12:30. The empties are collected at 1:30 and returned to homes by late afternoon.

Image of Dabbawallahs Sorting Tiffin TinsA total of four dabbawallas handle each individual tiffin on each run. The first collects the tiffin tin from the home. A second sorts the tins before they are placed in bins on a train. A third sorts the tins after they leave the train, and the fourth delivers the tiffin tin to the office.

Image of Tiffin Tin CodingThis enterprising workforce, 5,000 strong, is semi-literate; the tins are marked with symbols and colors which code their destinations. Each carries an origination symbol, a symbol for the destination station and one for the building where it’s finally delivered. The system is so precise that the error rate in just one in two months – or one in 16 million trips.

The dabbawallas have lots of experience to build on — the company has existed for well over 100 years, ever since British colonial times.

Why don’t the office workers carry their own lunches? A commenter named Karuna answers, writing on a business forum:

This Dabba is quite big and crude Alumininum container inside which the tiffin carrier is kept. One thing it is too big. and looks too crude and unsophisticated for a decent office-goer carry to with himself. The harried office-goer would hardly like to carry it with himself on his way back. More over bombay trains do not have space for commuters themselves. How can these big containers be accommodated during rush hour traffic?

I think there’s a tiffin in Allium’s future. No dabbawallas, though — he’s going to have to provide his own transport.

Image credits, all from flickr:

Tiffin lunch from Chris Brun
Bicycle from lheisinger
Sorting also from lheisinger
Tiffin codes from etm21

6 replies on “Dabbawallas and Tiffin Tins”

Re dabbawallas/tiffinwallas: Some people seem not to have read the original article, which pointed out that the great advantage was not that you didn’t have to carry your own lunch but that you could get home cooking while it was still hot (or at least warm)and it was unlikely that your poor old mother was going to rise early enough to make your lunch to carry anyway.

Very good point — and one I didn’t mention, though I was aware of it. Though I imagine that those poor old mothers did, in former times, rise in plenty of time to make both breakfast and lunch for everyone in the house! (Or someone did, at any rate.) Packing a tiffin certainly gives her a bit more time to perform these critical functions for her hungry household.

Now the issues are a little different — the number of dabbawallas has apparently remained constant at about 5,000 or so over the past 10 years, after decades of continuous growth. Fast-food and working wives are rapidly changing these eating patterns, and may eventually eliminate this venerable profession.

Not to anyone’s great advantage, may I say. Home-cooking versus fast food? No contest, to be sure.

Wow, never heard of it. But I like the thought of it. “Tiffin” sounded like a Hobson-Jobson word, and I’d heard it before in England, but the Wiki page traces it to Grose, a fabulous volume.

From the Wiki page, the line from Grose, defining tiffin: ‘ “Eating or drinking out of meal time, disputing or falling out; also lying with a wench, A tiff of punch, a small bowl of punch” ‘.

You [He] wrote: “I quite like the thought of being “He” now forever.”

As you wish!

well , lik how everyone gets excited reading bout dabbawallas, i too got…….but one thing which amazed me is the fact dat the organization is able keep the dabbawallas motivated and make dem work day in and day out and dat too in a city lik mumbai which has got all d variabilities…….hats off to these guys…….

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