Ever tried a walking tour in India? Meet the locals doubling up as historians and curating trails

How do you understand a city, beyond touristy clichés? Meet the local guides, doubling as historians, who are curating trails that show different facets of their neighbourhoods

February 10, 2023 02:52 pm | Updated February 14, 2023 09:53 am IST

A participant at a walk conducted by Gully Tours

A participant at a walk conducted by Gully Tours | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Explore Cubbon Park @ Bangalore Local Walks

For Sriram Aravamudan, a writer, blogger and video maker focussed on Bengaluru’s culture since the early 2000s, kickstarting Bangalore Local Walks was “a happy turn of events”. “I was invited by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) in mid-2022 to conduct a local history walk in Malleswaram as part of their annual interdisciplinary fest. The walk was a huge success, and with some kind words of encouragement from IIHS, I decided to launch off a walking trail on my own in Malleswaram in June, the neighbourhood I grew up in, and it is a riot of colour, chaos, sounds, smells and personal interactions” says Sriram, who launched another, more serene trail through Cubbon Park a few months later and alternates between them over weekends and on public holidays. 

Sriram, who heads business strategy for a farmers’ collective at his day-job, finds walking trails featuring high on people’s to-do lists over weekends. “The pandemic seems to have motivated people to step out, and walkers are also happy to have got their 8,000 steps in for the day while experiencing a plethora of interesting sights and sounds,” he says, adding that custom trails can also be booked.

Sriram Aravamudan’s walk in progress

Sriram Aravamudan’s walk in progress | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Explaining the research and homework that goes behind curating these experiences, Sriram believes researching local history “is always tough” given the limited amount of historically accurate material available to read up on. “The little that exists tends to be scattered. One also needs to collate multiple points of view of the same event to get a clearer picture of what actually transpired. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in contact with a few old time residents, scholars and academics, who have helped me immensely,” says the techie who hosts a maximum of 25 participants, and includes folklore, anecdotes and humorous incidents in his narrationof events.  Curating a walking path is a challenge too, he adds, “as you need to make sure it isn’t too long or short, and that there’s interesting stuff to see and talk about all the way through.  I do several dry runs — solo, as well as with friends who act as my test walkers, before I finally launch a trail.” 

A snapshot from a trail by Bangalore Local Walks

A snapshot from a trail by Bangalore Local Walks | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

With his current two trails suitable for people over 12, he says walking through historical parts of the city is something most walkers have never done before. “Many have hesitated to venture into these parts because they weren’t sure how to negotiate them alone.  Being in a group gives them an opportunity to step confidently into this ‘new’ old world and experience it safely, and in a historical cultural context.  The restaurants, markets, ancient temples and contemporary art walls tend to be the most appreciated in most of my walks,” says Sriram, who is now researching on two new trails, with one outside the city. 1

Weekend walks at ₹750 per head. @localwalks.blr on Instagram

Climb the Charminar @ The Hyderabad Walking Company

From Tokyo to Tanzania and Singapore to San Francisco, walking with locals has enhanced Navin Sigamany’s experiences of the place he is in. Having moved to Hyderabad for work in 2006, and “fascinated with the city, its stories, its people, its food and its culture”, Navin quit his job and set up The Hyderabad Walking Company in 2017. “Whenever I hosted visitors to Hyderabad, I was always amazed by how much the city has to offer, and how many stories there are to be told. However, the walking tour scene in the city left much to be desired. This was one of the main motivations for me,” says Navin. 

A snapshot from a trail by The Hyderabad Walking Company

A snapshot from a trail by The Hyderabad Walking Company | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Their flagship heritage walks are the City of Pearls walk and the Kingdom of Diamonds tour, he says. The latter takes you through the historic town centre — you get to climb the Charminar, walk in Laad Bazaar, explore Makkah Masjid and the Chowmahalla Palace. “This is a great introduction to the city since it combines a little bit of history, culture as well as a taste of every Hyderabadi’s favorite Irani chai and Osmania biscuits.” The Kingdom of Diamonds tour explores the Qutb Shahi capital that is today known as the Golconda fort and the Qutb Shahi heritage complex that has the tombs of the Qutb Shahi kings. 

Having said that, Navin’s most popular culinary tour is the Old Hyderabad Food Walk, where “we explore local-favourite eateries in the Charminar area in a three-hour walk that combines awesome food with the history of the area we are walking in. We visit eateries housed in 200-year-old and 400-year-old structures as we explore the culinary culture of Hyderabad”. 

Navin Sigamany on one of his walks

Navin Sigamany on one of his walks | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For 2023, Navin is designing a new tour that combines the two seats of power in Asaf Jahi times — the Chowmahalla Palace and the British Residency. “They are situated on either side of the Musi river and when visited in tandem, it is an interesting way to talk about the histories of the buildings and the people who lived in them, as well as comparing the features and architecture of the structures,” he says, adding that a new food walk in Mallepally is also on the cards. “We also hope to restart the Secret Ramzan Food walks during Ramadan wherein we visit the unnamed seasonal pop-up stalls that are set up during the season — something we did last in 2019,” says Navin, who is also a part of The Deccan Archive, a group of young heritage enthusiasts who conduct weekly activities. “Together we are working to create an open-source archive of as much information as we can about the heritage of the Deccan,” says Navin.

Between ₹4,000 and ₹5,500 per person. thwc.in 

A trail at IIT Madras @The Chennai Photowalk

Fifteen years ago, a set of like-minded people in Chennai started walking, clicking photographs of their beloved city, and it has now turned into a group of 21,000+ members. “Our city needs to be celebrated. The current set of groups and collectives are not just enough. We need one or two per neighbourhood as such city experiences immerses its dwellers to appreciating the city,” says Ramaswamy N, one among the seven mentors and leads of the volunteer-driven group.

An image of Besant Nagar taken on a trail by The Chennai Photowalk

An image of Besant Nagar taken on a trail by The Chennai Photowalk | Photo Credit: Achudhan Mani

Known for their trails in localities such as Triplicane, Villivakkam, Pattinapakkam, among others, Ramaswamy says,  “All of us have a day job and this is more of a passion, explaining how the volunteer leads come up with geographic ideas and routes. “The mentors curate them according to the season, festivities, neighbourhoods, official permissions (if any).

The next few months, says Ram, will see walks at Saidapet, Pondy Bazaar, Chettipunyam, Washermanpet, and Avadi. “The Saidapet walk will lead to the Saidapet Market, Karaneeswarar Temple, the surrounding neighbourhoods, with great opportunities to photograph streets, temple architecture. At Pondy Bazaar, walkers will get a birds eye view of the shopping district and the new wall murals.” But his favourite trail is the one at IIT Madras Walk. “The Institute permitted us and took us on a trail to explore the flora, fauna, and participants had a great time with Nature photography,” says Ram.

All walks are free, barring an entry fee, if applicable. @TheChennaiPhotoWalk on Instagram 

A participant on a walk by The Chennai Photowalk

A participant on a walk by The Chennai Photowalk | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A slice of Kerala @ Hear Guide

Rajeesh Raghavan started collecting stories about Kozhikode’s heritage sites in 2019, and took the lockdown years to curate them into a blog. “It was in early 2022 that I was advised to become a storyteller and narrate these stories to visitors,” says Rajeesh, who went on a few storytelling tours conducted by INTACH prior to kickstarting his initiative.

Hear Guide kicked off as part of a Kerala Startup Mission’s incubation programme in 2021, but he says. “As Covid was at its peak we could not produce the prototype, and I launched Hearitage Storytellers on March 1, 2022,” says Rajeesh, who also runs a tour operating service since 2016.

Taking us through his two trails — City of Truth and Beypore and Beyond, he explains “the former walk covers the circuit from Tali to Kuttichira — in a 4km radius, one can see how people from different communities have moulded the character of the city.” The latter, he says, explores Feroke, Kadalundi and Beypore. This year, he is expanding to Tirur, Ponnani and Thrissur. 

A snapshot from a trail by Hear Guide

A snapshot from a trail by Hear Guide | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The stories narrated are usually big on history, with experiences such as traditional food preparations, community meetings, and festivals thrown in. For instance, walkers get to visit the halwa making centre at Valiyangady, community meetings are arranged for international guests, tourists are taken backstage to Theyyam performances, etc. As for the homework that goes in, Rajeesh says meeting historians, and studying the stories behind the places are the first steps. “You then need to go and meet the people behind these spaces to understand the present situation. For example, The Pazhassi Raja Museum has been renovated with new items added, so we look for those stories.” 

Upwards of ₹1,000 for Indian nationals. hear_guide on Instagram.

Explore Hooghly Flower Markets @ Calcutta Photo Tours

Calcutta Photo Tours was founded in 2010by Manjit Singh Hoonjan who was unhappy with the way his city was being showcased, “especially from the point of view of the photographs that were going out into the world”. “Calcutta was long photographed as poor, and I wanted to send out images that truly represented the city in its entirety.”

A snapshot of the Hooghly Flower Market

A snapshot of the Hooghly Flower Market | Photo Credit: Manjit Singh Hoonjan

And so, the nationally and internationally published photographer merged his love for the art form and the city with his walks that he is pursuing as a full-time career for the last seven years. Popular trails include European Calcutta Tour (on the city’s history coupled with photography), Hooghly’s Flower Fest (a walk at one of Asia’s largest flower markets), Goddess Beckons Tour (a tour of the city’s potter’s colony), among others. “There are two interesting trails coming up this year on the history of food, and one that delves into the native past of the city,” says Manjit, who explains why every tour is “still a work in progress”. “Since Calcutta was not a regular “touristy” city, especially one that did not have the concept of walking tours when I started, it took more work than a standard tourist company would take. The research was required to be more in-depth and we met people, unearthed hidden stories and read all the possible books written about the city.” Today, it is the slow and casual pace of the tours that interests participants, he says. 

As for Manjit’s favourite trail, it is the Culture Kaleidoscope Tour. “It is a tour of the neighbourhood I grew up in and I feel that there is nowhere in the country that is as magical as this, and has received rave reviews.”

Upwards of ₹2,000 per person for a three hour tour. calcuttaphototours.com

An artisan at work at Kolkata’s potter’s colony

An artisan at work at Kolkata’s potter’s colony | Photo Credit: Manjit Singh Hoonjan

A Palace walk in Mysore @ Gully Tours

When founder Vinay Parameswarappa was working in Singapore back in 2007-08, he came across walking tours for the first time and decided to bring them to India as he found they are a great way to learn about a city. “When we started in 2009, it was a nascent concept with predominantly international travellers signing up. Today, our weekend walks are sold out with Indian guests,” says Vinay, who hosts walks in Bengaluru (Death by Dosa, Malleshwaram Street Art Walk, Colonial Crawl) and Mysore (Best of Mysore, The Palace Walk, Tipu’s Trail). 

A participant on a walk by Gully Tours

A participant on a walk by Gully Tours | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

His favourite trail? The Death by Dosa walk, a play on the city’s popular Corner House’s dessert, Death by Chocolate. “The walk is about food and exploring the oldest part of Bengaluru, Chickpete. We visit three old dosa joints to try three different kinds of dosa, and we discuss the history of food. We also stop at three non-food stops including a silk sari weaving unit, a 200-year-old heritage building, and one of the oldest antique shops in town.” Each tour has a meal included at a popular joint. “In the Colonial Crawl, we end with a meal in the popular 1940s cafe, Koshys. In the Malleshwaram Street Art Walk, we start with dosas at the iconic CTR,” adds Vinay, explaining that he conducts a lot of research online and offline via archives, interviews, and releases. 

₹1,500 per person, including a meal. @ gully.tours on Instagram

Old Delhi calling @ India City Walks

“The demand for walking tours in India is unending,” says Sachin Bansal, as “there is so much to show, interpret and document.” Having launched India City Walks in 2010, he says the most popular trails are the National Tourism Award winning heritage walks in Old Delhi — Mehrauli Archaeological Park Heritage Walk, Hauz Khas Heritage Walk, Gandhi Tour, etc. “We connect with the built legacy, indulge in interactions with locals and offer food tasting wherever the role of food is highlighted,” says Sachin who took tips on  thematic storytelling from his trips abroad to the UK, Germany, France, Italy and other eastern Europe countries “rich in architectural heritage”. 

On a trail by India City Walks

On a trail by India City Walks | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For Sachin, it is the art walks that have his heart. “It is an interesting trail which engages participants with the artists’ community in studios, and also includes visits to local sites with graffiti, etc”.  Upwards of ₹1,500 on indiacitywalks.com

A peek at the Pink City @ Jaipur Thru My Lens

Arvind, or Arv as he is popularly known, started learning about his city by way of “backyard explorations” in 2014, and launched his walking tours three years later. “I realised there were many facets of history and heritage that I was unaware of despite living in Jaipur for years. I started sharing my findings on my blog before starting my tours,” says Arvind, who runs the platform alongside his family business.

Participants on a walk by Jaipur Thru My Lens

Participants on a walk by Jaipur Thru My Lens | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He explains that he conducts walks based on demand rather than on fixed days. Every quarter, a walk is announced on his social media. “The trails showcase a distinct perspective of the Pink City and includes history, heritage, architecture, culture, fascinating anecdotes, and the evolution of the city spanning a period of close to 300 years. It is an immersive experience,” he says of the walks that take participants to sites such as Jaipur Gates, the Chaturbhuj Temple, among others. Addressing the two new trails added this year, Arvind says, “The Charms of Jeypore, and the Pink City Beyond Forts and Palaces launched in January.”

Upwards of ₹1,000.  @arv_jpr on Instagram

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