Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Astonishing Dabbawalas of Mumbai

The highlight of our time in Mumbai was spending a morning with the Dabbawalas – the guys that pick up and deliver lunches to office workers. Our wonderful guide, Aman Wallia, took us to their main office in Mumbai. 

There we met Vijay, a 4th generation Dabbawala and the youngest one at 19 years old, who is also their spokesperson.

Office workers in Mumbai often have to take very crowded trains to their workplaces. They may have a briefcase or other bag and they need their other hand to hold on (tightly) to the straps or handrails on the train, so they can’t be carrying the somewhat elaborate lunch that many Bombayites have to come depend on. Typically, several dishes are put into separate sections of a metal tiffin box – a chicken curry, rice and dal for example, and each section fits together one on top of the other. 

The office worker leaves early in the morning before lunch is made and the dabbawalas show up at the door between 9:30am and 10:30am, which gives the homecook time to prepare the meal. The Dabbawala picks up the food, which has been packed into a tiffin box and put into some kind of tote or lunch bag. They then transport them to the train station by bicycle and the dabbawalas ride with the lunch bags in a special car on the train to the main station. There they are divided by region and delivered to each individual office by 1pm in big bicycle carts.

The incredible thing is that the dabbawalas have a 99.999% accuracy for the 100,000 lunches they deliver daily. (Before Covid, it was 200,000 lunches a day. Even Harvard was super-impressed by their intricate system.) 

What’s even more noteworthy is that most of the dabbawalas are semi-literate. Because of this, they depend on a coding system which remarkably enables them to get the specific lunch to its rightful owner. All of this is quite amazing. What’s even MORE amazing is that in the afternoon, the entire process happens in reverse, with the empty tiffin box being delivered back to the home from which it came. Whew!

We followed one Dabbawala as he picked up lunch (I got handed the bag!)


We walked to the station and there was a lot of hubbub as they organized the bags and got ready to board the train.


We got on the train with the Dabbawalas in their special compartment. (Both doors were fully open 🙀).


We got off with them at the main station. There was a long section of sidewalk by the train station with numbers from 1 to 20. Each bag was put in its proper section and then went on to its final stop transported by a different group of dabbawalas. And bonus!...we got to wear (and keep!) the Dabbawala hat!😀 


Prince Charles (when his mom was still alive) visited Mumbai and very much wanted to meet with the Dabbawalas. They didn’t know who he was, but they agreed. But since they have a very rigid time schedule, they gave the Prince a specific time and place where they could meet and said they had only 15 minutes for the meeting. He agreed.

The industriousness and efficiency of the Dabbawalas is remarkable. And Vijay is among the Dabbawalas helping to bring the enterprise into modern times. They are building a large central kitchen and, for those who don’t have a cook or wife or grandmother home to make them a daily hot lunch, the dabbawalas now offer ready-made meals online, which are delivered using the same system.

This adventure, as with most on our trip, was organized by our whiz of a travel agent, Diana Traficante from

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