Heritage walks: A perfect blend of commerce and conservation

Spot the bird: Storytrails take walkers on the peacock trail at Kapaleeshwara temple in Mylapore, Chennai   -  STORYTRAILS

Long buried A heritage tour of the pits, once believed to have been granaries or strongrooms, inside Delhi’s Tughlaqabad Fort (built in 1321-25CE).   -  Praveen Kumar/DelhiByFoot

Heritage walks are generating revenue for the curators and the upkeep of lesser-known structures, while keeping history alive for future generations

At around 9.30 pm on Friday, April 13, a group of 20 met at SK Patil Garden, opposite Marine Lines Station, to begin a ‘grisly’ walk through a chawl of ghosts, haunted horse stables, cursed stones and shrines of friendly ghosts in Girgaum — a locality tucked behind Chowpatty in South Mumbai.

The walkers go through Khotachiwadi, a heritage village and home to a small community of East Indians (aboriginal people belonging to the seven islands that made Bombay), Pimpalwadi with its cursed stone, and other places before winding up at a graveyard at the stroke of midnight. During the walk, organised by Khaki Tours, not only did the participants discover the 200-year-old history and architecture of a little-known part of Mumbai, they also became familiar with some of its eternal residents.

Almost a month later, during Ramzan, another group, this time in Delhi, got together to discover what it is like to break the ‘roza’ or fast at sunset in the walled city. Organised by DelhiByFoot thrice a week, the iftar walk starts at the Jama Masjid Metro station and, over the next three to four hours, curates a tour that covers the history of the walled city, Shah Jahan’s mosque in red sandstone and white marble, as well as stops at the best places for the fast-breaking meal.

Long buried A heritage tour of the pits, once believed to have been granaries or strongrooms, inside Delhi’s Tughlaqabad Fort (built in 1321-25CE).   -  Praveen Kumar/DelhiByFoot

 

The walkers get to feast on Bade Miyaan ki kheer at his 130-year-old shop, opposite Badal Beg Mosque, nibble on Ustad Moinuddin Qureshi’s kebabs near Mirza Ghalib’s 300-year-old haveli, and sample Nawab bhai’s watermelon-Roohafza milk sherbet, besides discovering food joints as quaint as the walled city itself.

Heritage walksare an increasingly popular way to discover hidden nooks and corners of cities — replete with history, folklore, mythology, tales of kings and queens, and sometimes otherworldly beings.

With the growing interest in uncovering cities on foot, heritage and food walks have become a business opportunity for entrepreneurs. “There are many more organisations today than there were 10 years ago. And there is a need for more creative ideas in this space,” says Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara, a former banker and IT consultant who, in December 2006, started Storytrails, an organisation that helps people sample India through its stories. His company currently organises trails in Chennai, Madurai, Puducherry and Thiruvananthapuram.

Like Kamalakara, Khaki Tours’ founder Bharat Gothoskar and Ramit Mitra of DelhiByFoot also gave up corporate jobs to pursue their passion for walks. “In Mumbai, many of the heritage walks were started for tourists, and in the non-tourist seasons, there were walks conducted for the public. We started from the other end — organising walks for Mumbaikars, but now have tourists also as our clients,” says Gothoskar, whose family has lived in Mumbai for 12 generations.

Searching for stories

Despite his family’s nearly 200-year-old association with Mumbai, Gothoskar says it’s not easy to curate an interesting and insightful walk, and there is no fixed formula either. Rather, it involves a lot of research. “I was influenced by Sharada Dwivedi (urban historian who wrote several books on Mumbai). I have read about 500 books on the city and preserved newspaper cuttings. And when you speak to local residents and historians, more stories tumble out, and that’s how a walk is born,” he says.

His views are echoed by Mitra, who began by spending hours researching in libraries across Delhi, sometime in 2005, after he realised there were many people who were keen to know more about the Capital’s lesser-known or hidden monuments and uncover its history. “A group of us friends started going around Delhi in a bid to know more about our city. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know. We would go to libraries and also buy books on Delhi — from generic to the refined,” he recollects.

Kamalakara and his team of 10 (including a chartered accountant, a historian, a caricature artist, a former CXO, an engineer and MBAs) read up on everything there is to read about a city, meet experts from various fields, interview locals, and walk its bylanes many times over. “But most of our time goes into curating information. Information is easily available today, but to curate it into bite-sized stories that are enjoyable and insightful at the same time, is what we spend our time on. The logistics of the tours, the permissions and tie-ups needed, form the other elements,” he says.

Given the good revenue opportunities, a host of newbies are entering the fray, but not everyone is focused on quality walks. “The entry barrier in the industry is low, the capital requirements minimal, most markets are under-served, and there are many options to reach out to people,” Kamalakara adds.

As a result, almost every city in India — from Lucknow to Hyderabad and Kolkata to Ahmedabad — is seeing the emergence of companies or groups offering walks — both on weekdays and weekends. And big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have over 30 players offering walks. But only those who provide a differentiated experience are able to build a sustainable customer base.

Gothoskar and his team have curated 27 walks in the last two-and-a-half years. “We pack maximum information in every walk and take you to places where you will never go on your own,” says Gothoskar. Khaki Tours launches a new walk every month, and more than a hundred of their customers have done at least 15 walks with them, in a testimony to their consistent client base.

Mitra agrees that while there are many players offering walks, some available even for ₹200 a person in Delhi, his firm charges ₹500 for a weekend walk and upwards of ₹1,000 for a customised walk. “We don’t worry about competition because our research is robust and we are passionate about storytelling.”

His team includes environmental activists and conservationists, a fifth-generation ‘Delhiwalla’ and photojournalists besides co-founder Jaya Iyer, a former faculty member in Delhi University, and actor and director of over 300 street-plays. Diversity adds glamour as well as depth to walks, besides helping separate the grain from the chaff.

And the customers are diverse too. Storytrails hosts 18-year-old backpackers on a budget as well as the well-heeled 70-year-olds who come on a cruise. “Nearly half of our guests are business travellers who take time off to explore the city. About 20 per cent of our guests are locals looking to explore their cities,” says Kamalakara. His overseas guests are mostly from the US, UK, Germany, Australia and Singapore.

Expansion trails

Mitra and Gothoskar have diverse sets of people opting for walks, but a common segment are students. Surabhi P had gone on walks in Delhi as a student of history. “Curated walks give a whole new perspective to monuments as the organisers narrate events and stories around them, the kind that cannot be found in textbooks,” she says.

Surabhi now likes to take her son on heritage walks to familiarise him with the history of a city that has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times.

And to keep alive the interest of those such as Surabhi, companies are adding newer themes and destinations to their itinerary. Khaki Tours has started two-hour heritage cruises to showcase the evolution of Mumbai’s harbour and the structures around it. “We are also offering specialised tours on the Jewish history of the city, besides weekend tours to Alibag and Vasai,” says Gothoskar.

The business model, it appears, can be replicated across cities. But the companies are focusing on maintaining quality.

“It is a scalable business model only if you see it as an organisation and not just a collection of individuals who know the city well. Our constant effort is to make an idea replicable and scalable, without any impact on quality,” says Kamalakara.

That perhaps explains why Storytrails still exists only in four cities despite being around for more than a decade, while Mitra’s six-year-old DelhiByFoot has just spread out to Agra and Jaipur.

Team Khaki is looking at expansion differently. It is setting up an NGO called the Khaki Heritage Foundation, which will focus on awareness, archiving and conservation of historical monuments. The foundation will be supported by crowdfunding and corporate sponsorships, says Gothoskar. “The foundation will look after the city walks for Mumbaikars, while Khaki Tours will provide customised experiences such as jeep rides, city tours, food and nature walks and cruises for tourists as well as city-dwellers,” he adds.

Heritage walks appear to be the perfect marriage of conservation and commerce. If walks can generate revenues for conservation as well as for their curators, history in the bylanes of India will not be lost and future generations will know their bit about Mankapya, the headless ghost who haunts Khotachiwadi, or the Khan-i-Khanan Tomb in Delhi, where rests Rahim, the poet in Akbar’s court who has given us innumerable couplets on life and love.

Published on May 18, 2018

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