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Tour guide’s version of city: Tales or facts?

Tourist guides at city’s heritage sites narrate varied tales; however, most stories are missing from historical references

delhi Updated: Jul 22, 2016 16:18 IST
Sohil Sehran
Pawan Popli always wanted to be a tour guide and studied History at Delhi University. He has been assisting people at heritage sites for the last 25 years.
Pawan Popli always wanted to be a tour guide and studied History at Delhi University. He has been assisting people at heritage sites for the last 25 years.(S Burmaula / HT Photo)

“In 1984, a young couple committed suicide by jumping off the Qutab Minar, after which the government banned the entry for public,” says a guide authoritatively. However, if you walk a little ahead, you can hear another one assert, “There was a stampede inside the minaret in 1997. Eight children, who were on a picnic here, were killed. And since then entry is restricted.”

Tourist guides while assisting foreigners and Indian nationals at heritage sites narrate varied tales. Most of their narratives, which they swear are the ultimate truth, cannot be found in any historical reference by experts or the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Historians say the traditional guides narrate concocted stories, and to a large extent, the taller the tale, the more it helps them grab the attention of visitors to make their earnings for the day. A guide earns Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 per day.

History experts claim contradicting historical facts about nearly every bit of our heritage has emerged in the backdrop of the rapid change brought about by the Internet and backed by smartphones and tablets. Thus, a tourist nearly always has every possible historical detail about the monument he/ she wants to visit, be it large or small. In view of this, guides allegedly make up their own stories to prove they are superior and have something a typical tourist would not be able to access on the Internet.

For example, Qutab Minar. Made of red sandstone and marble, the construction of the structure — a 73m tall tapering tower with a diameter measuring 14.32m at the base and 2.75m — was started in 1200 AD by Qutb al-Din Aibak, the founder of the Delhi Sultanate. Aibak’s son-in-law Iltumish added three more storeys to the tower. A century after, in 1369, lightning struck the top storey, destroying it completely. Firoz Shah Tughlaq then took over the responsibility of its restoration.

Surya Kant has many anecdotes about Qutab Minar. According to him, it was a favourite place of the Britishers to dine. (S Burmaula / HT Photo)

However, some of our inimitable guides, who attend to and show around scores of visitors on a regular basis, say lightning never struck. In fact, the last two storeys were damaged due to high intensity quakes in 1328 and 1368, prompting Tughlaq to begin restoration. These guides also point out that the last two storeys are donned in white marble, a clear testimony that it was a place for British officials to dine. Evidently the East India Company was rather adept at procuring fancy digs.

A senior ASI official agrees that guides give their own descriptions. Thus, it is planning to take steps to ensure that only authorised guides by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, are allowed to enter the monuments.

“I cannot tell false stories to visitors,” says guide Narendra Singh Rathore who is also trained in French. “I tell them every single anecdote that is associated with the history — the real history — and that is needed because they don’t know English. But, I have seen some guides who, despite being associated with this trade for ages, tell concocted stories to foreigners as well as Indians.”

Many tour guides say they mostly benefit from European visitors or those who don’t know English. And those who are well-versed in a foreign language make good wage by assisting them at heritage sites, Qutab Minar being one of them. At least 3,000 people visit Qutab Minar on a day and 300 of them are international visitors who pay Rs 500 per person for entry into the monument site.

Surya Kant, another guide at Qutab Minar, says, “Some facts that we know and tell people cannot be called concocted as people who are experts in the field have the same tales in their repertoire. Officials don’t usually agree to these factoids or use them as references in their history books, but people are interested in listening to these stories only.”

According to him, Qutab Minar was a favourite of the Britishers to dine. “There used to be a lot of hustle bustle. People want to know these stories and not the boring details,” he adds.

Although guides know a few words of many foreign languages, Narendra Singh Rathore is well-versed in French. (S Burmaula / HT Photo)

At Humayun’s Tomb, they say there are rumours of restless spirits due to the presence of 172 graves that mostly belong to the relatives of Mughal king Akbar. They also claim the tomb has all mortal remains of Humayun, however, only two bones have been found here.

Guide Pawan Popli, a History graduate from Delhi University, has been assisting people at heritage sites for the last 25 years. He knows historical facts and is well aware of the myths related to the sites. He believes that unknown facts makes research more valuable.

While briefing some tourists from Karnatka, Popli, donning a hat, said, “I wanted to be a guide to know more about our history and heritage sites and give people the correct information. At many heritage sites, I keep having a countering experience with facts.”

He said the many facts narrated by guides have been twisted for their survival. However, these stories are not entirely worthless as they have an origin.

His statement is backed by historian Dr Sawapna Liddle. She says, “In some cases the stories narrated by these guides at heritage sites do have relevance, but mostly they modify the stories to make them interesting for the visitors. At the end of the day, facts with historical relevance are accepted. They are following all those old stories. For instance, some people say Shahjahan cut the hands of masons who built Taj Mahal, it’s not true but people have accepted it. This is also the case with other monuments.”