“If you go back to the 16th century, the Portuguese had complete monopoly over the sea trade route to India from Europe,” begins Alisha Sadikot, who runs the Inheritage Project in Mumbai. “Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a name largely forgotten, changed all that. An assistant of sorts to the archbishop in Goa, his magnum opus Itenario [a book based on his five-year stay in Goa], opened up the seas to the Dutch, French and British; the passage to India was no longer a secret.”
We are standing inside Mumbai’s Bandra Fort or Castella de Aguada, built by the Portuguese, for the walk that Sadikot is leading, titled “Bandra: Past, Present and Future”. The fort was strategically built to overlook the Mahim Bay, Arabian Sea and Worli area. The landscape now also features the Bandra-Worli sealink, of course, yet the underlying layers of history are uncovered through Sadikot’s explanations. Of the seven islands given as dowry to the British; of Charles II leasing them to the British East India Company for a pittance of £10 per year; of Byramjee Jeejeebhoy; high towers; the gentrification of neighbourhoods; and pockets like Ranwar village that still hold a mirror to colonial times, with their wooden porches and external staircases.
Bandra isn’t the only pocket Sadikot walks you through. The Inheritage Project runs six other walks across the city. Similar endeavours attempt to peel back the layers of time, helping modern-day citizens explore the lost corners of cities across India, bringing to fore the history, architecture, culinary traditions and native art forms of each urban cluster. While heritage walks have been running for decades through independent ventures as well as non-profits like Intach, it’s only now that they have gone mainstream, so to speak.
“Initially, heritage walks were confined to small interest groups — architects, historians and enthusiasts. Around 1999, [Delhi’s] India Habitat Centre started opening these walks to the public. Some of us, who started [leading] heritage walks later, were inspired by these. While we studied history in college, no one connected it to the structures around us,” explains Swapna Liddle, convenor, Intach Delhi. “It just was not part of the conversation.”
Today though, the growing momentum has led to the rise of heritage walk festivals. In the capital, the third edition of the Delhi Walk Festival last November offered views through expert eyes — writer William Dalrymple, artist Samar Singh Jodha and others led walks. A month-long India Heritage Walk Festival starting February (see box) now aims to also focus on cities such as Patan, Itanagar, Bikaner, Varanasi and Srinagar. Says Sadikot: “It’s not just the numbers that have increased but also how invested the participants are in the subject.”
Even in the metros, many places gradually found their place on the map. “No one knew of Mehrauli before, today it is in the guide books,” says Liddle. Taking off from the India Habitat Centre’s work, Intach started organising more walks. Its Delhi chapter started these walks in 2005. “It wasn’t easy though — to make it self-sustaining, getting leaders and, more importantly, convincing people to pay. We did get a little support from Delhi Tourism, but one key development in the space has been CSR support from the YES Global Institute.”
YES Global, a think tank of YES Bank, has been supporting heritage walks and cycle tours through its cultural wing, YES Culture. “A steady change in mindsets is crucial for a change in attitudes and establishing a connect with one’s heritage. We believe this is what will lead to citizens to make more informed decisions about their heritage, as well as, in the long term, inform public and corporate policies,” says Preeti Sinha, Global Convenor, YES Global Institute and senior president, YES Bank. The institute is also supporting the India Heritage Walk Festival, curated by online heritage and culture resource, Sahapedia.
While more financial support can only help the movement, public policy and planning leave much to be desired. “There is enthusiasm but we have to find ways to get the authorities to do more for heritage, to open up places to the general public. Consider Shahjahanabad. It has so many havelis, if you just improve the infrastructure, people will come,” says Liddle. There are simple, unobtrusive design interventions that can help too, says Sadikot, citing the example of Boston: “The Freedom Trail is a simple red line embedded in Boston’s streets that runs through all sites associated with the historic struggle. People can walk up and down the line and explore the whole area themselves without having to bother about signs in different languages.” A similar intervention could do wonders for Mumbai’s fabled Fort area, for instance, which packs in so much history that is obscured by everyday commerce. For now, the line between awareness and activism is yet to be crossed.
An edited version of this article was published on Business Standard