The international concept of walking tours has arrived in Delhi in a big way with foreign tourists exploring the multi-faceted city on foot like never before. No wonder then that there are many individuals, organisations and even international niche tour operators offering themed walking tours of the city.
"Since last October, my tours have been completely booked till March this year. And most of the bookings are from foreign tourists, mostly from Europe and the US who want to explore Delhi on foot," said conservationist Surekha Narain, who conducts themed walks in Delhi.
In fact, Narain, who already has 25 themed walks in her repertoire, soon plans to add 10 more. Her walks -British 1911 Delhi, Mughal Delhi and Sufi Delhi - feature among the most popular tours of this kind. "I always try to find new nooks and corners of Delhi. I also customise walks for my clients depending on what they are looking for. In the past one year, walking tours of Delhi have become a huge tourist phenomenon," said Narain.
Kanika Singh, who conducts heritage walks under the aegis of Delhi Heritage Walks, said: "These days, half the people who join our walks are tourists. Their numbers have been steadily increasing in the past couple of years. Many of them want to explore the lesser-known areas of Delhi with us."
One of the most popular walks conducted by the Delhi Heritage Walks is 1857: The First War of Independence. Singh added that many foreigners have been inspired for this walk by William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal.
Jack Leenaars, a Delhi-based Dutch national who runs a very popular cycle tour company in the city, says the reason why foreign tourists go for such specialised walks is that they don't just want to see the city, but also "experience it". "Like Rome and Cairo, Delhi has heritage and history in its every nook and cranny. Unlike earlier when foreign tourists preferred Varanasi and Jaipur for a slice of India, they now want to explore Delhi," said Leenaars, who has a tie-up with several travel agencies for his bicycle tours. Sam Miller, the author of Delhi: Adventures in a Mega City, who also keeps getting lots of requests for walking tours of the city, added, "My walks are aimed at people who want to see a living, breathing city. I do not follow any route. Unlike any other city in India, Delhi has lot of fascinating hidden places that make for good walks."
Shantum Seth, known for conducting Buddhist pilgrimages, concurred: "Delhi has been a much-maligned city, but people are now realising that it is an amazing place. It represents an entire panorama of India in terms of culture, history and diversity of faith."
Seth's Delhi tours - Diversity of Faith, Capital Story, The City of Djinns, and Gandhi and Craft - which he started two years back, are pretty popular with celebrities that include Hollywood actors, Western businessmen and CEOs. "My journeys through the city are not monument-oriented, but conversation-centric. For me, monuments are just a tool to introduce history. I basically lead an inner journey, which is focused on bringing about an inner change in a person. But if this inner shift does not happen, then I feel I have wasted mine as well as their time," said Seth, who prefers to call himself a 'cultural interpreter and a spiritual teacher'. Seth is the younger brother of well-known author Vikram Seth.
In fact, it is the talks during these walks that make them different from the usual city tours to the monuments run by tour operators. The idea, says the walk leaders most of whom are history buffs or have an academic background in history, is to enliven the city's history and heritage.
"We make the walks interesting by telling people stories and anecdotes associated with the place. The idea id to make people enjoy heritage as a living tradition," said Singh. "I use lots of photographs, sketches, rare maps and stories of the particular area," said Narain. A ride in Delhi Metro is a part of most of Narain's walks.
Realising the popularity of walking tours, many international tour companies such Urban Adventures, which conducts walking tours in many cities across the world, have also started Delhi tours. Some of the Delhi tour it offers are Sunrise Delhi, where you "experience a sleeper side of Delhi street life", and Home Cooked Delhi, where you can "relish joyful cultural meanings of Indian food and meet an Indian family at their home".
So, what are you waiting for? Let's walk it out.