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Go on a walking tour and see India on foot

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Garima Garg on 15 Sep 2019

The Straits Times

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When Mr Nitin Amlani moved to Bangalore with his family for work in 2013, he found himself in an unfamiliar territory.

 

Originally from the state of Maharashtra, in central India, he did not speak Kannada, the local language, and did not have friends who could show him around the city.

 

But he went on food walks organised by walking tour agency Unhurried and was soon mesmerised by the city.

 

"These tours have helped me connect the dots of Bangalore's history; from Kempe Gowda to Tipu Sultan to British rule," said Mr Amlani, 32, a digital marketing professional. "Now I try to find such tours wherever I go, even my home town."

 

Unhurried was set up in 2012 by Ms Poornima Dasharathi, who is in her 40s. She says such tours have mushroomed in Bangalore in the past couple of years.

 

Now, the tours can even be tailored to suit a client's area of interest, for instance, a tour of the architectural styles prevalent in the city for an architect.

 

There are at least five such walking tour agencies in Bangalore, as their popularity continues to grow.

 

Today, many such tours are running in different cities across India. Whether it is a cosmopolitan city such as Mumbai or Chennai, or a second-tier city more popular for its heritage than urban development such as Varanasi or Jaipur, travel professionals are increasingly digging out stories that resonate with Indians and foreigners looking to go beyond the average tourist experience.

 

Within a decade, more than 1,000 city walking tours have come up in India, according to a search on travel websites.

 

While on an average city walking tour, participants are given a general overview of a place of interest, there are tours that focus on experiential storytelling and strive to take people back in time as they walk through the city. Because of this, they tend to be pricier and can cost anything between US$15 (S$20) and US$30. They can last up to three hours and often include stops to eat or drink something as well.

 

These walks appeal to the average upwardly mobile Indian, who is more likely to be fluent in English than any other regional Indian language except his or her mother tongue.

 

With India's push towards development and urbanisation, people are increasingly moving across states for work and tours like these help them find a home away from home.

 

It was Ms Dasharathi's experience with such tours abroad that made her want to bring the same professional approach to India. A former IT professional, she said that until 10 years ago, Bangalore was mostly known as the Silicon Valley of India.

 

"The second thing that would come to mind is the traffic and then the weather," she said. "But no one ever thought of flora and fauna when it came to Bangalore. Most of the trees here are naturalised, like the Gulmohar, which was first brought to India by the British in the 19th century from Madagascar."

 

Today, Unhurried offers more than 15 kinds of trails, including nature trails, food walks and heritage walks.

 

On one of the tours, one can sit down and play lost traditional Indian games such as Chowka Bhara and Aadu Puli Attam, often found carved into homes, temples and streets of the city.

 

The research for this kind of experiential storytelling can send her looking for a map at a municipal office or chasing leads from magazine articles and public libraries.

 

While Bangalore may increasingly be thought of as a heritage destination, Kolkata finds it harder to escape its decaying city tag. The negative publicity from the late Mother Teresa's work with the terminally ill has left a strong imprint, especially for Westerners.

 

Mr Manjit Singh Hoonjan, 46, questions this perception because he feels the city has much more to offer. A Sikh whose family belongs to the state of Punjab, Kolkata and photography are two of his lifelong passions. He brought them together in 2009 when he set up Calcutta Photo Tours to tell engaging stories of the city.

 

"Poverty porn is easy here and my whole idea was to stay away from it," Mr Hoonjan says. "When I was creating my tours, it was important for me to have stories that showcased Kolkata with pride."

 

His most popular tour, Cultural Kaleidoscope, takes people through neighbourhoods of the city that are populated by Chinese, Armenian, Portuguese, Jews and Parsi (Zoroastrian). These people made India their home at different points of time in history, but have enmeshed themselves in the fabric of Kolkata so intimately that it can be difficult to tell them apart at times.

 

"I have also given tours to local hotel employees, like concierges, and many of them were locals. When I told them about Mallick Ghat flower market, they were surprised that they did not know about it," he adds.

 

The market is Asia's largest flower market and comes to life under the city's popular Hooghly Bridge every morning.

 

"People travel the world, not their neighbourhoods. We always have a tentative idea of the place where we live, but we never really go into depth. It's the same story across the world," says Mr Hoonjan.

 

But 10 years ago, it was not easy getting people to understand the concept of a city walking tour. "I would get queries from people who would call as soon as they landed in the city. When I would tell them this was not a typical sightseeing tour and they would have to walk for two hours, they would ask me what was I charging for if there was no transport and food?"

 

Today, as more Indians travel abroad, they are increasingly comfortable with the concept of city walking tours. Even though most of Mr Hoonjan's clients tend to be foreigners, more Indians are beginning to show interest. From conducting a tour a week, he now manages around five bookings in a week.

 

Delhi By Foot's Ramit Mitra, 42, agrees with him. "When we started in 2011, we had to explain to people what a food walk was or what a heritage trail was. Now, 30 of them show up even in peak summer at 4pm, which says a lot about their enthusiasm and trust in us," he says.

 

"The heritage of Delhi is limited to a few iconic monuments for most people. When they find out more, they become very enthusiastic and start to engage better," says Mr Mitra, who set up Delhi By Foot to provide experiences in culture, history, music, food and nature in India's capital city.

 

Such tours have helped create communities of travellers, photographers and history enthusiasts, who are more curious than ever about the cities they live or work in.

 

Mr Mitra says their Facebook page is full of people posting bits of trivia about the city discovered by them or articles about old buildings being torn down.

 

• Garima Garg is a freelance writer.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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