Every time my husband and I go travelling in India and we wonder whether we should hire a tourist guide at a major attraction, I’m reminded of an experience at Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, is a very major site – it was established in the 16th century by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The palace complex, in particular, is the highlight of any trip to Fatehpur Sikri: the palaces are gloriously carved, and have interesting histories to them.
Our trip to Fatehpur Sikri was very impromptu: we woke up one Sunday and decided to go to Fatehpur Sikri for the day. We didn’t get any time for research, so when we landed up, we hired a guide – a licensed Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guide. These guys go through training and exams, so we’d guessed we’d be in safe hands. Almost from the very first structure in the palace complex, we realised how wrong we were. "This," said our guide, waving towards a set of stone cells, each with a stone ring carved into the base of the wall, "were the stables. The rings were used to tether the horses."
We walked on till the end of the ‘stables’, only to find the regulation ASI sign. On it was written the sad truth: "contrary to what most tourist guides say", this was not the stables, but possibly the chambers of the maids. The stone rings were used to probably secure curtains or screens. At nearly every building in the complex, our guide had something interestingly juicy to tell us – which, on examination of the ASI sign alongside, proved to be pure bilge.
Which is why we don’t really trust Indian tourist guides very much. There’s a tendency to play to the gallery – doesn’t everybody love a delightful history? – so delightful histories are cooked up. It’s pretty much the same case in Delhi too. For example, guides will tell you that the massive barbican in front of the gate of the Red Fort was built by Shahjahan to ‘veil’ the fort from public gaze (the barbican was raised by Aurangzeb, long after he had succeeded Shahjahan as emperor).
Your best bet, therefore, is to either spend a lot of time and effort finding a guide who really knows what they’re talking about (not an easy proposition, as there are a lot of charlatans out there) – or to get yourself a good guidebook. Unfortunately, since most travel guides try to cover everything a tourist would be interested in, the amount of detail and explanation you can expect is pretty minimal.
This is where Swapna Liddle’s recently-launched book Delhi: 14 Historic Walks (Westland Ltd; ISBN: 978-93-81626-24-5) is a boon. Swapna’s a historian (her PhD was on 19th century Delhi, so she’s literally on home ground here). Also, she’s been conducting historical walks for over a decade now. I’ve been on umpteen walks with her – in fact, all the information in my numerous ‘Historic Delhi’ journals has been compiled from notes I’ve taken on her walks.
Delhi: 14 Historic Walks covers, as is obvious by its title, fourteen walking routes. These include Delhi’s three World Heritage Sites (the Qutb Minar area, Humayun’s Tomb, and the Red Fort), plus eleven other areas that are rich in historical heritage, such as Lutyens’ Delhi, Tughlaqabad, Hauz Khas, Nizamuddin, Lodi Garden and Safdarjang’s Tomb, and Purana Qila. Each chapter (one per walk) begins with a brief history of the area, followed by a longer description of the walk route. Here, there are clear instructions on which path to follow, what to look out for, and – of course – the history of each structure along the way. Unlike a lot of other comparatively boring tourist literature I’ve come across, Swapna’s book actually takes the trouble of explaining architectural nuances that help you to appreciate a building better. For example, how the arch developed from a clumsy ‘false’ arch (Indian stone workers knew nothing of arches till the Central Asians brought the concept here) to a ‘true’ arch – or how you can tell the difference between the cenotaph of a Muslim male from that of a female.
Alongside are occasional anecdotes. I am a writer of historical books and do a lot of research into 17th century Delhi, so in my self-satisfied way, I’d not been expecting to come across anything new. But there was – interesting legends (and, significantly, specifically marked as legends or stories, not paraded as history) about places and people in Delhi’s history. There are little asides, like excerpts from the memoirs of travellers like Ibn Battuta, François Bernier and Maurice Dekobra. There’s a sadly prophetic couplet by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah. There are the names of the common bird species to be seen at Hauz Khas. And more.
From the purely practical angle, too, the book delivers. At the back of the book is a map of Delhi, with each walk area highlighted, along with major roads and the Delhi Metro rail network. Each chapter has a detailed route map, including prominent landmarks and roads in the vicinity, plus (of course) the exact route of the walk and the structures it includes. Also provided for each walk are the details you’d need as a visitor: timings of monuments, ticket prices, amenities, parking facilities, difficulty levels, special instructions (for instance, for Tughlaqabad, Swapna mentions that you should wear sensible footwear and garments that cover your legs, since thorny scrub covers much of the area). For each walk, she also specifies the approximate time you can expect to spend on the walk – and suggests an abbreviated walk, with only the highlights, should you have relatively little time at your disposal.
The book has lots of black-and-white photographs of the buildings described, along with the maps. It’s a neat size, so it’ll fit easily in your hand or bag – and, blessedly, it’s a lightweight book that you can actually carry and refer to on a walk. I’d have preferred some nice colour photos, but I can see the publisher’s point of view. Glossy photos and art paper are all very well for coffee table books, but they can make a book expensive – and inconvenient for rough handling (I’ve had guidebooks come apart in my hands during a trip). So, I’ll forgive the black-and-white photos.
If you’re interested in Delhi’s history – even if you don’t have the time to go on each one of these walks – I’d highly recommend buying this book. Even if all you’re interested in is seeing Delhi’s major historical attractions – the Red Fort, India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb and Qutb Minar – this book’s a lot more tourist-friendly and historically accurate than your average guide. And, at Rs 495 (just about $10), it’s a worthwhile buy – look out for it at major bookstores in Delhi, including at the airport. It’s also available online from Amazon.com, and in India from booksellers like Flipkart and Infibeam.
If you can’t get a good historian to lead you on a walk through Delhi, this is the next best it gets.