Last two years have been one of trade fairs, conferences and meets. I had the opportunity to travel to cities across India, and took the opportunity to explore the local experiences and uncovered a completely different aspect of travel i.e. Heritage walks.
Heritage walks are where you capture sights, sounds and original flavours of the city. Morning / evening, couple of hours are spent walking around listening to a light hearted narrative from a local guide, enjoying sumptuous street food and taking a quick peek into history & heritage of the city. Through these walks I realised that “Real India” is alive and thriving in these Old Cities and recommended them to all travellers looking for an experience.
Let me give my summary of these walks that may help you plan your travel better.
Pondicherry- July – 2016
Pondicherry is where we stayed in the French Quarters (White Town) by the Promenade. We took a cycle rickshaw exploring the heritage character of Pondicherry. French Quarters were quiet and organised whereas neighboring Tamil quarters were busy and chaotic. It was amazing how the two co-existed right next to each other. The guide gave us an amazing insight into colonial history of Pondicherry and its modern context. We visited a most amazing Lord Ganesha temple (Vinayagar Temple) alongwith French heritage monuments (War Memorial, Church etc). This cycle rickshaw ride was one of the most photogenic of all our heritage area explorations and we just could not stop taking pictures against the backdrop of heritage mansions, historical monuments, cobbled streets, busy markets and the promenade (by the Bay of Bengal). Breakfast at CGH Maison Perumal was a fitting end to a morning well spent.
Old Delhi Food Walk – Dec 2016
With some local Delhi friends we undertook an evening food walk through renowned old city areas of Delhi. Idea was to sample as many items while walking around the old city. We started with fried fish and Mutton Nihari at Daryaganj. The we took a short cycle rickshaw towards Chandni Chowk. Next we explored sumptuous Paranthas of Paranthewali Galli followed by the Dahi Bhallas. To work up more appetite we walked bylanes of the area (Including once featured in bollywood movie Delhi – 6). Every bylane had a certain theme in terms of what they sold. There was one entirely meant for wedding related items, while one other dealt with temple offerings. Last quarter of the evening was spent enjoying Kababs in bylanes around the Jama Masjid. The buzz, bustle and character of this experience was memorable and must do for every experiential traveller. There is so much to explore, savour and experience that I would surely look to comeback some day for more.
Ahmedabad – Feb – 2017
Ahmedabad heritage walk took us to narrow bylanes popularly known as “pol”. It started with an old (and very soulful) Swami Narayan Temple. We explored bylanes as we understood the architecture and cultural elements of 500+ year old Old city (which is now is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site). It was amazing how so many communities co-existed in harmony so many years ago. We visited craft centre, local homes, old temples and had a sumptuous breakfast at a heritage haveli. It all ended at Jama Masjid, an architectural marvel with mixed Mughal and local influence in its architecture. What made it most interesting is that the past and the present lived in perfect harmony in a world where almost everything else is getting modernised at a frantic pace.
Amritsar – Jan 2018
We arrived with Golden Temple visit as our prime focus. 3 days stay allowed us to explore the old city, sample its street food, do some shopping of Phulkari and Juttis. We visited around the Lohri festival and we had the pleasure of locals flying kites all day on their rooftops. Just at the edge of the gated Old city were the liquor shops where we had the pleasure of having street beer (Literally !) with amazing Amritsari Fried Fish. During the day there was Lassi and in the evenings it was a wholesome meal with Amritsar Kulcha. Every bit of our stay was most enjoyable. Amritsar Old City with the Golden Temple backdrop can be one of the most soulful and spiritual experiences alongwith the renowned Amritsari street food and shopping.
Madurai – July 2018
Madurai is a 3000+ year old civilisation (much like Varanasi) and therefore there is very little of old that has survived. However Storytrails, an organisation who specialises in heritage walks beautifully narrated a light hearted story on Madurai over a 3 hour walk. The story was a mix of mythology and insights on cultural elements. This coupled with some local South Indian breakfast, made our morning which otherwise would have been only around visiting the Meenakshi temple. The old city around Meenakshi Temple is also foodies delight. Rs 100 meal served on a Banana Leaf at Hotel Sabrees (that we had later in the day) was definitely the most awesome South Indian meal I have ever had. Story Trails also conducts food walks that unravels the street food heritage of the city and I look forward to exploring during my next trip.
Lucknow – Aug 2018
Lucknow heritage walk was about understanding Colonial history (British Residency), its monuments (Bada Imambara, Chota Imambara, Rumi Darwaza) and Luckowni Crafts (Chikankari Embroiday). Later in the evening it was all about Tunday Kababs, Biryanis and Kulfi, all renowned Lucknow specialities. While the rest of lucknow has evolved into a modern city, thankfully the old city has retained its original character and was an evening well spent exploring.
Varanasi – Aug 2018
Varanasi heritage Old city is unlike any other. It is a world within a world. Renowned as the oldest living city in the world, nothing I did earlier would have prepared me for this. Old city here is set around Holy River Ganga. Pilgrim travellers arrive here for the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (One of the 12 Jyotirlinga Temples) and evening Arti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is most renowned. There is a “Khichdi Baba” Temple that serves free Khichdi to the hungry and the needy. There is an unimaginable array of characters on the street that includes astrologers, Sadhus, Tantrics, Paan shops and street vendors. There are cycle rickshaws that are jostling with people who are walking in and out of the Ghats. The boat ride is another experience. There are all kinds of Ghats, some where you just pray and some others where you bury the dead. The spirituality in the air is unmistakable. Out of the boat, walking in narrow bylanes around the Ghat areas is like walking in a live puzzle game. We were privileged to be invited to a breakfast experience to Brijrama Palace Hotel that offers superb views, sumptuous breakfast and a nice Ganga River backdrop to reflect on what was an incredible 24 hours spent in Varanasi.
Fort Cochin – Sept – 2018
Cochin has been a harbour for spice trade for many centuries and Fort Cochin is one area where you’d find the colonial influence very much alive. Homes with Dutch and Portuguese influence have been now converted into fine heritage hotels and its an experience just walking / cycling around the area. Other end of the heritage area is the old Jewish markets and walking around the streets of Mattanchery was an interesting experience, followed by a dinner by the harbour front at a local restaurant. The cultural centre “Greenix Village” is interesting too. We were glad to see local arts and crafts preserved and showcased well. The Chinese Fishing nets is another interesting thing. We witnessed the old style fishing and had the catch taken to nearby restaurant by the street for a quick barbecue. Fort Cochin is like an island of experience that has survived test of time and thanks to unique Geographical elements of Cochin and eco-friendly local practices, I am hopeful that it will retain its native character and charm for all times to come.
Mumbai – Jan 2019
While I have been travelling across India. It was inevitable that I paid tribute to history and heritage of my own city. Khaki Tours in Mumbai have been doing good work exploring heritage elements and creating walks around it. So one Sunday morning we explored Old City area of Bhuleshwar with them. Having spent all my life in Mumbai, I felt a bit embarrassed as to how little I knew about its past. There are so many unique temples created by different communities over period of time. To add to that there were markets, heritage buildings and shops that stood test of time. Like Ahmedabad, the cultural harmony element stood apart and it was amazing to see communities co-exist for many centuries. 3 hour walk left us wanting for more. We ended up staying back to enjoy the sumptuous Thakers Thali. We ended up taking up couple of more walks from Khaki tours who now have become some sort of Heritage evangelist, championing cause of heritage walks in Mumbai (and hopefully elsewhere as well in future).
Chennai – Sept 2019
Mylapore area in Chennai is the traditional residential area that sits like an Oasis in a corner of now much modernised Chennai. The flower market, Kapaleeswarar Temple and the bustle of the area is worth a visit any day. Storytrails again enchanted us with a walk that narrated a bit about the mythology around the temple and the traditional character of the area. The walk ended with a traditional South India breakfast and Coffee at the renowned Ratna Cafe. It certainly was a morning well spent. Mylapore allowed us to understand native character of Chennai and I could relate it to my very own Matunga (where I was born and have lived eversince), a small Tamil dominated corner of Mumbai.
What Next ?
Goa, Rajasthan, Bangalore and Kolkata are definitely on the to do list. What I realise that doing one walk is not enough and I would continue to explore and experience cities through the prism of heritage walks / Food walks. These walks have grown on me and everywhere I travel, I look at a possibility of doing one of these walks and unique experiences around old city areas.
Do write to me on firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas and recommendations that you may have. Me and my team would be delighted to plan an itinerary full of such authentic experiences that would make it memorable for you.